Richard Nixon Broke John Adams’s Gavel

February 7th, 2016

Apparently, the President of the Senate used the same gavel from 1789–when John Adams presided–until 1954 when Richard Nixon took the seat. Why? During a raucous debate over atomic energy, Tricky Dicky cracked it! The New York Times has this report from 1982:

It was one of those late night sessions in which some senators, sometimes after a nip or so too many, had become a bit raucous. The Vice President, trying to restore order, rapped the gavel sharply.

Too sharply, in fact; the gavel began falling apart.

That was 28 years ago. The debate was over opening atomic energy to commercial use. The Vice President was Richard M. Nixon. The tiny ivory gavel that broke that night is still brought into the Senate chamber each day during the session, nestled in a velvetlined box that has a twin compartment housing a duplicate ivory gavel used by the presiding officer.

The two gavels, almost identical, are about the size of a threeminute hourglass, such as those used by cooks to time eggs. They do not have handles, as do more traditional gavels.

The original is believed to have been first used by Vice President John Adams to call the Senate to order in 1789 in New York City. There  are no records of who fashioned the gavel.

Nixon then set out to find a replacement. The Government of India provided a new ivory gavel, which is still used today. The gavel on the left is the original, and on the right is the 1954 replacement.


There is some dispute over whether the gavel in fact dated back to 1789. Traditions of the Senate notes:

The earlier gavel was in use by 1834, and according to one account, Vice President John Adams used it to call the first Senate to order in New York City on March 4, 1789. That gavel has silver plates affixed to either end.

The book 200 Notable Days: Senate Stories 1787-2002 explained that “Adams may have used the gavel in 1789, although he seems to have preferred the attention-getting device of tapping his pencil on a water glass.” Of course, Adams derided the position. He said, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” While the Senate debates were not recorded, this recreation from the John Adams miniseries on HBO likely demonstrates what the interactions between Adams and the Senators would have been like.