On December 23, 1858, Representative William Porcher Miles introduced a resolution to “consider and report on the expediency of removing the present desks from the Hall, and making such arrangements of the seats of members as will bring them together in a smaller space, for the purpose of greater facility of hearing and more orderly debate.” In early January 1859, a special committee was created to investigate the matter. Referred to by several names, including the “Select Committee on the Removal of Desks and Rearrangement of Seats of Members,” the committee made this report on February 15, 1859.
The opinion of the select committee, which included Miles, along with George Hunt Pendleton, John Letcher, Edward Joy Morris, and Israel Washburn Jr., was emphatically on the side of removing the desks, for two reasons. Members often used their desks to write letters and conduct other business, rather than listening to lengthy and sometimes dull speeches, which the committee believed was contradictory to their duty as Representatives. Secondly, the configuration of the large room made it nearly impossible for everyone to hear what was being said, resulting in time wasted repeating things and a generally dissonant atmosphere.
Committee members consulted with Captain Montgomery Meigs, superintendent of the Capitol extension, about how the space might be reorganized to reduce noise in the chamber. Closer seats would bring decorum, the report explained: “When honorable gentlemen can make themselves heard without screaming themselves hoarse, and hope to catch the Speaker’s eye and obtain the floor without scrambling for it with the noise and vociferation of school boys scrambling for an apple. . . . [W]e may then expect to have quiet, decorous and orderly debate.” The committee recommended the passage of a resolution to remove the desks and to “make such a rearrangement of the seats of members as will bring them together into the smallest convenient space.”
On the last day of the 35th Congress (1857–1859), March 3, 1859, the House voted to remove the desks and replace them with benches. Less than a year later, the decision was reversed, and the same desks were reinstalled in the chamber.