Publication Date

October 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


Editor’s Note: This past June marked the debut of the second volume on the history of the U.S. Senate. The volumes are a series of speeches given to the Senate over the past several years by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) on the history of that institution. The following are a part of the remarks made by Senator Byrd at a reception hosted by Librarian of Congress James Billington celebrating the publication of this volume at which AHA President William Leuchtenburg was the featured speaker.

I am not a historian, but I am a serious student of history. I say serious because I read history, not for entertainment or to pass the time away or to earn my bread and beans, but to enlarge my own learning and broaden my perspective and to make myself a better senator. I say serious because I thirst and hunger for history and pursue the study of it vigorously and systematically, as though I were seeking a master’s degree or a doctorate in that field.

But why history? Henry Ford said, “History is bunk,” and Voltaire apparently took a similar view toward it. But Machiavelli, in The Prince, wrote: “…the prince ought to study history and study the actions of eminent men, …and above all, do as some men have done in the past, who imitated someone who has been much praised, and have always kept his deeds and actions before them, as they say Alexander the Great imitated Achilles, Caesar [imitated] Alexander, and Scipio [imitated] Cyrus.”

Cicero, who, at the height of his power, was called “the most eloquent of the sons of Romulus,” said that one “should be acquainted with the history of the events of past ages. To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born, is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history.”

And the role of fortune will always be capricious, as history will show. Croesus so advised Cyrus the Great, when Cyrus launched his campaign against Tomyris, queen ruler of the Massagetae. Said Croesus, according to Herodotus, “there is a wheel on which the affairs of men revolve, and its movement forbids the same man to be always fortunate.” Senators, as well as other politicians, should take note. Cyrus failed to listen to this lesson of history, and he lost the battle. He also lost his head!

History is, in a sense, that “lamp of experience” by which Patrick Henry said his feet were guided. “I know of no way of judging the future,” he said, “except by the past.” Jefferson said, “History, by apprising [men] of the past, will enable them to judge of the future,” which is true, the reason being that human nature has never really changed, and it will never change.

…Sworn in as a new Senator in January 1959, I gradually developed an interest in the rules and precedents and the history of the Senate. It came to mean more than just four walls of marble, handsome mahogany desks, luxurious draperies and carpets, and an ornate chamber where speeches and laws are made. It became something far more majestic; something that had a life of its own, larger than the totality of all its members. There was something about the Senate that was far nobler than these mundane and tangible things—something imperishable. It had a soul!

And so this history has been a labor of love.

Volume 2 takes a closer look at the institution itself than does volume 1. Its basic purpose, from my standpoint, is to instill into the members of the Senate, now and in the future, a greater sense of institutional memory. As the 1579th of the 1799 individuals who have served in the Senate since it first developed a quorum on April 6, 1789, I have sometimes observed members who have never seemed to possess or acquire that institutional memory, without which, to be a Senator is only to be a member of an elite fraternal group or social club or political party, draw a government check twice monthly, make speeches, attend fundraisers, attend to the problems of our constituents, enjoy the perks of office, and wear the high and honored title of Senator.

I also hope that his volume will be helpful to senators in the future when they are considering such matters as treaties and confirmation of nominations, or when sitting as a court in impeachment trials.

I wish to conclude by reading from volume 2 my epilogue on the Senate.

After two hundred years, it is still the anchor of the Republic, the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation. It has had its giants and its little men, its Websters and its Bilbos, its Calhouns and its McCarthys. It has been the stage of high drama, of comedy and of tragedy, and its players have been the great and the near-great, those who think they are great, and those who will never be great. It has weathered the storms of adversity, withstood the barbs of cynics and the attacks of critics, and provided stability and strength to the nation during periods of civil strife and uncertainty, panics and depressions. In war and peace, it has been the sure refuge and protector of the rights of the states and of a political minority. And, today, the Senate still stands—the great forum of constitutional liberty!

…I hope you will read it. I hope you will enjoy it. And I hope you will learn from it.

Senator Robert C. Byrd
Library of Congress
June 1991