Search billions of records on

Charles P. Higgins
Sergeant at Arms, 1913-1919  

It was four in the morning. Several dozen irritated
and sleep-deprived senators waited impatiently for the
Sergeant at Arms to do his job. On that chilly early
morning of March 2, 1919, Senate Sergeant at Arms
Charles Higgins had a handful of problems. More
precisely, he had fifty-three problems. Fifty-three
of the Senate's ninety-six members chose not to come
to the Senate chamber to answer a quorum call. 
Lacking a majority of its members and with just a few
hours remaining before the term of the 65th Congress
was to expire at noon on March 4, the Senate was
unable to transact any business. That business
included a stack of appropriations bills necessary to
keep the government in operation. Two-thirds of the
absent senators were Republicans, many of whom wished
to stall the pending legislation until the new
Congress convened. In that Congress, as a result of
the 1918 elections, control of the Senate would shift
from the Democrats to the Republicans.

The Senate needed a quorum of forty-nine members
present, but only forty-two answered the early-morning
roll call. Several senators refused to leave the
party cloakrooms just off the chamber. Others simply
stayed home. A frustrated Democratic floor leader
moved that the Senate order the arrest of members in
the cloakrooms; another member amended that motion to
include any senator known to be elsewhere in the city.

At 4:55 a.m., the Senate formally directed
sixty-year-old Sergeant at Arms Higgins -- the only
Senate officer with the power to arrest a senator --
"to use all necessary means to compel the attendance
of absent senators, excepting those away on account of
sickness." Within a half-hour, Higgins sent a
messenger to the chamber to report that he had managed
to locate six absentees. Two of them complained they
were too sick to attend; another said that he was
"unable to come." Three others promised to arrive
"immediately." Several other senators wandered into
the chamber, but the Senate was still several votes
short of a quorum. 

Within minutes, Higgins sent in another report naming
the fourteen senators who failed to answer their
telephones. This prompted a sarcastic outburst from
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Furnifold Simmons,
the North Carolina Democrat responsible for overseeing
many of the blocked appropriations bills. "Mr.
President, I do not wish to say anything reflecting
upon the Sergeant at Arms. I have no doubt he is
doing what he can; but I think he ought not to rely
upon telephoning Senators, but that he ought to send
messengers to their houses if they do not answer the
telephone. It does not accomplish any purpose to
telephone a Senator when no answer is received. I
think it is the duty of the Sergeant at Arms to do
more than that." As Higgins began to dispatch the
messengers, three more senators arrived. This gave
the Senate its necessary quorum and the presiding
officer directed Higgins to call off his search.

As of March 1919, Charles P. Higgins had been sergeant
at arms for six dramatic years. He had won election
to that post in March 1913, just as the Democrats came
into the majority for the first time in eighteen
years. On March 7, 1913, a jubilant caucus of
Democratic senators convened to elect a new slate of
Senate officers. Meeting just three days after
Woodrow Wilson's presidential inauguration, the caucus
faced difficult choices for the patronage-rich
positions of Sergeant at Arms and Secretary of the
Senate. For the office of Sergeant at Arms, the two
senators from the recently admitted state of Arizona
nominated a candidate. So did an influential senator
from Oklahoma. But these three had little chance
against the more senior senators from Missouri, who
lobbied quietly for Charles Higgins. 

Their candidate had been born in St. Louis in 1858. 
After graduating from high school, Higgins became a
telegraph operator and rose through the ranks of
several companies to become manager of the Western
Union office in the St. Louis Merchants' Exchange. 
Later, he took up duties as superintendent of that
city's police and fire telegraph operations. By his
thirties, Higgins was actively engaged in Missouri
Democratic politics and served as a delegate to state
and national party conventions. By the 1890s, Higgins
had become a protégé of Democratic Governor William
Stone, who appointed him chairman of the state board
of election commissioners.

In March 1913, as the Democrats prepared to take
control of the Senate for the first time in eighteen
years, the former Governor William Stone had been a
senator for ten years and was posed to become chairman
of the Foreign Relations Committee. Although he
carried considerable influence in his party's Senate
caucus, he had to fight for Higgins. Only after three
separate ballots did Stone's candidate get the job.

Immediately after Higgins' election, a special
committee of the Democratic caucus reported on its
recent survey of Senate patronage positions. The
incoming majority party intended to ensure that
patronage jobs were evenly divided among Democratic
senators and that the Republicans in the minority had
no greater patronage advantage than did the Democrats
during their minority years. The caucus committee
also reviewed the effectiveness of the individual
employees to protect those "who by efficient
experience, capacity, and diligence, expedite business
to the credit of the Senate and the comfort and
advantage of the individual Senators." 

Exempted from this review were staff listed on the
"Old Soldiers' Roll" (OSR). The OSR consisted of
Union army veterans, many of whom were either disabled
or otherwise beyond their productive years. Most OSR
listees owed their appointments to Republican
senators, whose party proudly associated itself with
the Union's Civil War victory. Two years earlier,
Senate Republicans had moved to protect the old
soldiers against the increasing possibility of a
Democratic takeover. To do this, they adopted a
Senate resolution allowing all Union veterans on the
Senate payroll to hold their positions until they
voluntarily retired. When the Democrats took the
reins in March 1913, they honored this provision, but
noted that it offered no guarantee against salary

In early 1913, the Sergeant at Arms' office had
approximately 250 employees, including 25 old
soldiers. Seventy others among the 250 were
guaranteed continuation in their jobs "on account of
character of service rendered." This left 106
positions to be filled by the Sergeant at Arms "on
nomination by senators." Forty-five other jobs were
to be abolished on the grounds of being unnecessary.

In trying to balance the need for competent and
experienced staff with the natural patronage demands
of a political institution, the Senate Democrats were
following a tradition that Senate Republicans had
maintained during their earlier years in control. 
Later, when the Republicans resumed the majority in
1919, they continued that tradition.

During the six tumultuous years that Charles Higgins
served as Sergeant at Arms, the Senate enacted
far-reaching economic legislation, modernized its
floor operations, and addressed the growing
requirement for American involvement in the First
World War. Higgins organized funerals for fourteen
senators who died in office while Congress was in
session and played a major role in planning ceremonies
at the Capitol for President Woodrow Wilson's second
inauguration in March 1917. Weeks later, on April 2,
1917, Higgins led the procession of senators to the
House chamber to hear the president ask Congress to
declare war against Germany, launching the United
States into that most horrible of conflicts.

When the Republicans regained control of the Senate on
March 4, 1919 -- two days after Higgins' search for
the fugitive senators -- the Sergeant at Arms turned
in his resignation to prepare for the appointment of a
Republican successor. That appointment came in May,
when President Wilson called Congress into a special
session to pass the appropriations bills that had been
blocked during the filibuster in the closing hours of
the previous Congress.

Charles Higgins, perhaps happy to be relieved of his
responsibilities for rounding up reluctant senators,
returned to his hometown of St. Louis, where he went
to work for the Missouri-Warrior Barge Service. In
January 1922, he developed a severe form of kidney
disease and died from that ailment on August 19.

Fort Wayne News April 5,1913 
Charles W Higgins
The new sergeant-at-arms who will preserve order in the United States senate is Charles W Higgins of St Louis, MO. He was appointed just recently and is the first Democrat to hold the place in thirteen years. Mr. Higgins began life in the employ of the old Pacific and Atlantic Telegraph Company of which Andrew Carnegie was president. This is the first job he has ever held under the federal government.