British traveler Henry B. Fearon cast a critical gaze from the House Gallery across the frothy sea of nearly 200 Representatives of the 15th Congress (1817–1819). Fearon had just endured a languid Senate session in which “apathy and complete lifeless endurance” greeted the endless speechmaking. Though he judged the House’s inhabitants comparatively lacking in “age, experience, dignity, and respectability,” Fearon nevertheless journaled a scene that churned and pulsed with legislative bustle. “Spitting boxes are placed at the feet of each member, and, contrary to the practices of the [Senate],” Fearon observed in 1818, almost parenthetically, “at once members and visitors wear their hats.”
Of all the sights, sounds, and mannerisms of the U.S. Congress, hat-wearing legislators seemed the least exotic to an Englishman. Like so much of the American legislative tradition, donning hats on the House Floor harkened to an ancient practice in the House of Commons, where members wore hats to express their independence from the Crown.
At first, this symbolism conveyed easily to politics in the young U.S. republic. A handful of long-in-the-tooth legislators held pungent personal memories of the American Revolution, while many of their junior cohorts shared deep suspicions of executive encroachments. The symbolism of hat-wearing while legislating resonated with many in the early federal Congresses and Members, on an individual basis, could choose to do so. “The members sit with their hats on or off as they please,” Thomas Hubbard of New York wrote his wife, Phebe, on Christmas Day 1817, adding that decorum still required that “when any one rises to speak he must respectfully take off his hat and address the Speaker.”
But just a few years later, calls for elevating the dignity of proceedings threatened this tradition. Members still spat copious amounts of chewing tobacco, smoked cigars, carried weapons, swilled liquor procured from no fewer than 12 vendors in the Capitol, and unfurled newspapers at their desks which they used to prop up their feet during debate. But reformers trained a steady fire first on removing hats. With a parliamentarian’s flair for delicate understatement, Hinds Precedents reports that for much of the 1820s and 1830s efforts to ban hats were “the fruit of considerable agitation.”
To some degree, this was due to a powerful new cultural imperative, a striving for gentility and social refinement sweeping the young nation. The historian Richard Bushman notes this impulse touched every facet of American life: homes, schools, consumerism, dress, speech, and even politics. “Once adopted, gentility transformed life into a performance in which one’s beauty and grace were constantly on display,” Bushman explains. “Houses, yards, carriages, costume, posture, manners were all part of the show, part of the seeking for applause, part of the dread of scorn.”
In its own way, and at its own pace, the House joined what Bushman describes as gentility’s wider “beautification campaign.” In March 1828, George McDuffie of South Carolina, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, introduced one in a succession of amendments banning hats from the floor. It read, “No Member shall remain covered during the session, and within the bar of the House, except with the special leave of the Speaker.” McDuffie expected colleagues to embrace his proposal with “unanimity.” They did not.
In the amusing debate that ensued McDuffie claimed that the forest of hats on the floor made for poor acoustics. He railed “there is as much of a man above his head as below it,” a not-so-subtle swipe at the more garish head-gear some Members donned. One hat-wearing culprit, George Kremer of Pennsylvania, shot back that the acoustics problem “was more in the Hall, than in the hat.” Besides, he refused to yield a matter of Members’ “convenience” to the Speaker’s “discretion.”
Virginian William McCoy, a House elder, interjected why not just “take the head with the hat”? Perhaps, McCoy added, the House ought to require “members to take off their shoes, as this is holy ground.” Acoustics were bad, he admitted, but he blamed the towering “accumulation of papers” at the desks and Members “conversing in a tone almost as loud as the speaker” while strolling about the chamber. Besides, he added drolly, “It was not desirable that all should be heard which was uttered in the Hall.”
Then, Representative Charles Mercer of Virginia, a longtime hat opponent, rose from his seat. Mercer embraced the rules change, proudly noting that the Virginia house of delegates (where he’d served seven years) banned the practice. “A thousand inconveniences arise from our neglect of trifling courtesies of manner which ought to be regarded by us,” he concluded. Chief among those “evils” were newspapers’ “distorted reports” of speeches that even the correspondents could not hear.
Lastly, John Marable of Tennessee, a bald 52-year-old doctor, expressed his hope that should the resolution pass he would be exempted. Marable explained that he wore his hat year-round—“in the cold weather to keep off the cold, and in warm weather to keep off the flies.” Maryland’s Peter Little then successfully moved to lay the resolution on the table—which the House approved 88 to 78, effectively killing the 1828 proposal.
The implications of that episode rippled across the public galleries. Weeks earlier, at the opening of the session, Speaker Andrew Stevenson of Virginia—without putting the question to the whole House—had ruled that decorum demanded that all visitors take their hats off during debate. Placards to that effect were posted and a half-dozen messengers roamed the galleries to police the no-hat rule. One correspondent deemed it an unenforceable “farce.” Not only was it “exceedingly oppressive to those single gentry who wore borrowed hair, or needed it” but “the order was stoutly resisted.” No sooner had the “busy executors of the speaker’s mandates, scarcely uncovered one head, before another was seen exalted by the altitude of a hat’s length.”
The symbolism didn’t fly, either. By voting down a hat ban on the floor while compelling visitors to sit hatless in the gallery the House caused “great” agitation among the Jacksonian-era visitors who viewed it as supremely undemocratic. “They were willing to conform to any rule the House would make, operating on all alike,” one correspondent explained, “but they thought it smacked a little of aristocracy, to be made to pull off their hats to their servants below. . . .” Embarrassed and beleaguered by the public outcry, Speaker Stevenson quietly rescinded his order in late March 1828.
As the House organized itself at the opening of the 23rd Congress in December 1833, James K. Polk of Tennessee introduced yet another resolution to ban hats. Lewis Williams of North Carolina, the chairman of the Committee on Territories, pushed back at the suggestion. Williams was no ordinary Member. As “Father of the House” (the Member with longest continuous service—“Dean” in our modern parlance) Members accorded him extra clout as the very embodiment of institutional memory.
Williams noted that the proposal had repeatedly “been rejected on the ground that there was no convenient place for putting our hats.” Members didn’t have personal offices in the nineteenth century, and their modest desks and chairs on the floor were not designed with shelves to stow one’s topper. “If gentlemen were to be forbidden to wear their hats, what were they to do with them?” he asked. A Boston Courier correspondent implied that House squeamishness had less to do with having no place to hang one’s hat, than it did from dread of acquiescing to what had long been “Senatorial custom.” With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the reporter wrote that opponents “gravely opposed it, because, forsooth, they had no other pegs than their own heads to hang their hats upon!—a most wise and important conclusion all will allow, in this land of liberty, where every man has a right to do almost as he pleases.”
Nearly a week later, John Mercer Patton of Virginia waxed at length about the hat-wearing tradition’s roots in England. The symbolism of standing up to executive power seemed too potent, too relevant to simply discard. “Regarding then this usage as merely ‘the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual’ freedom of this body from all executive control or interference, let us preserve it,” Patton exhorted his colleagues. “And whenever, if ever, our executive magistrates shall attempt to employ any improper influence on this body, let us be found with our hats on.” Perhaps it was no coincidence that during the presidency of “King Andrew Jackson,” Patton’s plea fell on receptive ears, and the rules were not amended.
At last, two Congresses later, on September 14, 1837, in the 25th Congress, the Select Committee on the Rules of the House reported a provision that “Every member shall remain uncovered during the sessions of the House.” Without debate or fanfare, the House adopted it as part of a long list of rules changes.
Herein, the patient and persistent hand of one of the original anti-hat agitators clearly played a big part. Representative Mercer, now in his 11th term, held the chairmanship of the Select Committee on the Rules of the House. He made the most of his opportunity to impose upon the U.S. House those rules of decorum that he seemed so greatly to admire from his service decades before in the Virginia assembly.
A few weeks later, perhaps emboldened by his success, Mercer tried to institute even more reforms that drew from the Old Dominion’s example. One of them would have required all Members to remain in their seats after adjournment until the Speaker left the rostrum. An exasperated Jesse Bynum of North Carolina charged that soon the chamber would be reduced “very much to the appearance of a country school.” The “House had gone full far enough,” Bynum thundered, by adopting new rules “banishing the sale of spirituous liquors from the Capitol, and making members sit uncovered.” After all, he added, Members were responsible for their morals at home, not in the Capitol!
Chewing tobacco would be next, Bynum warned. “There was no knowing where this thing would stop.” Mercer admitted he wouldn’t mind seeing that carpet-ruining habit ended, too, though the practice sloshed onward into the twentieth century.
Still, hat removal seemed a first step toward elevating the dignity of House proceedings, and, if the press accounts were any gauge, a most welcome one. When the first session of the 25th Congress adjourned in October 1837, the Daily National Intelligencer approvingly noted the polished “composition, character, and manners” of the House. Refinement in the early Republic meant that Representatives would make laws without their hats.
Sources: Henry Bradshaw Fearon, Sketches of America (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1819); Papers of Thomas Hill Hubbard, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992); Hinds Precedents; various editions of the House Journal, Register of Debates, and Congressional Globe; Daily National Journal (Washington, D.C.), 20, 25, and 28 March 1828; Alexandria (VA) Gazette, 21 March 1828; Delaware Weekly Advertiser and Farmer’s Journal (Wilmington), 3 April 1828; Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 4 December 1833, 10 and 17 October 1837; Boston (MA) Courier, 16 December 1833; United States’ Telegraph (Washington, D.C.), 10 December 1833; Raleigh (NC) Register and North-Carolina Gazette, 16 October 1837; Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), 14 October 1837Follow @USHouseHistory