For more than a century, a desk in the House Chamber was a Member’s office. He stowed his hat beneath his chair, wrote and stored papers in the writing desk, and occasionally propped his feet up to listen to debate. During a Representative’s temporary, boarding-house existence in the capital city, a spot in the Chamber was the most permanent home he had. The ways Members secured their all-important desks evolved from free-for-all to highly orchestrated political theater.
Why did picking one’s desk matter? It was an entirely practical matter. The best locations were those close to the Speaker’s rostrum, where a Member could hear proceedings and be easily recognized by the Speaker. The first method of assigning desks was likely some variation of a “first-come, first-choose” rule. Sutherland’s Congressional Manual, published in 1839, noted that it encouraged early arrival for the session, something devoutly wished by the House’s leaders, who struggled to reach a quorum. Sutherland added the helpful tip that ownership of a desk was accomplished by writing one’s name on the desk itself.
By 1826, Robert Taylor of Virginia, unhappy with his lot, introduced the first resolution to conduct a lottery to determine desk assignments. Nothing came of it, but the lottery was proposed again several times in the next decade. Each attempt was bolstered by fresh ire at those who had obtained the best seats by early arrival or illicit trades. An 1841 dispute over desks illuminates one practice: swapping seats. Halfway through the 27th Congress, John Sergeant of Pennsylvania resigned his seat. Two Members, freshmen Robert Caruthers of Tennessee and John Dawson of Louisiana, each claimed the vacated desk. Caruthers said that he and Sergeant had exchanged seats just before the latter’s resignation. Dawson said that the transfer was not sanctioned by the rules of the House, and therefore Sergeant’s seat was abandoned when he resigned. Debate centered on whether trading before a planned departure was “unwarrantable, partial, and unjust” (Dawson). The House declared the exchange was valid, “a custom which has heretofore been usual among members of the House.”
Clearly, though, desk management had broken down. In 1845, the House’s leadership determined that a lottery really was the answer. Future Speaker Howell Cobb of Georgia offered the resolution on December 1. Debate was vigorous and surprisingly good-humored. The measure passed 117-77, and Clerk Benjamin French immediately produced a box containing slips of paper with names scribbled on them. Members gathered in the well, anxiously waiting to choose their seats as French pulled the slips out and read the names, one by one.
Over the next half-century, the desk lottery became a cherished ritual at the start of a Congress. A blindfolded Page drew slips of paper and later, numbered ivory balls, from a mahogany box. August Members were honored by choosing their seats in advance. By the 1870s, it was the dean of each party, former Speakers, infirm Members, and chairmen of particularly important committees, each of whom placed his hat on his desk to remove it from consideration in the lottery.
Although the desk lottery disappeared in 1913, when the House installed benches, one Chamber tradition from that earlier time still holds sway. When Members chose desks, Democrats placed themselves to the Speaker’s right. Whigs, and later Republicans, were to the Speaker’s left. Representatives had long clustered by state delegation, and that slowly turned into seating by interest and, with the growth of the Whig and Democratic Parties, partisan alliances. Today, Members of the two major political parties continue to sit divided, across the center aisle from each other.
Sources: Joel Barlow Sutherland, A Congressional Manual; House Journal, 19th Congress, February 16, 1826, and 27th Congress, December 8, 1841; House Chamber seating plans, 1820, 1836, 1845, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives; Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 1869 and January 1900; Artemas Hale Papers; Hamilton Fish Papers.Follow @USHouseHistory