While the mace, made by New York silversmith William Adams in 1841, intentionally looks like this ancient symbol, aspects of it are unmistakably American. The 13 bundled rods of the shaft represent the original 13 states. Continents are etched into the globe atop the shaft, with the North American continent facing forward. Perched atop the globe is the national bird of the United States, the bald eagle, another symbol of strength.
The mace is a symbol of the authority of the Sergeant at Arms of the House of Representatives. In 1789, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that established the role of the Sergeant at Arms. The resolution stipulated that “a proper symbol of office shall be provided for the Sergeant at Arms, of such form and device as the Speaker shall direct.” The first Speaker of the House, Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, chose a symbol with a long legislative tradition and an even longer tradition as an implement of war. In the Middle Ages, the mace was widely used in Europe as a weapon. However, by 1789, the mace was commonly used as a ceremonial symbol of legislative power. For example, maces were used in the Houses of Parliament of the United Kingdom and the general assembly in colonial Virginia.
The Sergeant at Arms is tasked with maintaining decorum in the Chamber of the House of Representatives. A booklet about the mace, published in 1956, explained that the Sergeant at Arms may use the mace to achieve decorum. “Whenever, as seldom happened,” the booklet disclosed, “an individual Member became turbulent and seemed beyond the Speaker’s control, the Sergeant at Arms, on order of the Speaker [of the House], lifted the mace from its pedestal and ‘presented’ it before the offending person.” For example, a print in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper depicts Sergeant at Arms John G. Thompson holding the mace on the floor of the House of Representatives. The caption reads, “The Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Representatives, on the Night of January 31st , giving a preliminary warning to disorderly members.”
Thompson also appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on March 5, 1881. The print depicts him performing another duty of the Sergeant at Arms: holding the mace as he enters the House Chamber with absentee Members of the House of Representatives behind him. The Sergeant at Arms can compel absentee Members to the House Chamber to perform legislative duties, in this case creating a quorum so that legislative business could be accomplished. The National Republican explained that on February 24, 1881, while the House of Representatives was in session, some Members were attending a reception at the White House. Thompson dispatched his deputy Sergeant at Arms to retrieve those Members and bring them back to the House Chamber.
When the House of Representatives is in session, the mace is usually placed atop a pedestal to the Speaker's right side. Another booklet about the mace, published in 1940, described it as having played “a silent but important part in the day’s proceedings.” The mace has silently witnessed many significant events of American history. For example, the mace was pictured behind President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 8, 1941, when the President asked a Joint Session of Congress to declare war against Japan.
Although it does not happen often, when the House of Representatives meets outside of the House Chamber, the mace follows. For example, on November 25, 1940, the mace was present during a session of the House of Representatives in the Longworth House Office Building. The House of Representatives met in the Ways and Means Committee hearing room while repairs were made to the roof of the House Chamber.
The next time the House of Representatives is in session, look for the mace.
Sources: Zeake W. Johnson, Jr., ed., The Mace of the House of Representatives of the United States (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1956); Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess. (14 April 1789); “All Day and Night” in National Republican (Washington, D.C.: W.J. Murtagh, 1881); Kenneth Romney, ed., The Mace of the House of Representatives of the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940).Follow @USHouseHistory