Charles Lee Watkins (1879–1966)
Charles Lee Watkins served as the first parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate. For more than a half century, he sat at the dais in the Senate chamber, advising hundreds of legislators and ten vice presidents on the Senate’s complex rules and procedures.
Charles Watkins was born on August 10, 1879, in Mount Ida (Montgomery County), the oldest of seven children of John A. and Nancy Rebecca (Smith) Watkins. He graduated from the Mount Ida Normal Academy in 1900 and attended the University of Arkansas law school in Little Rock (Pulaski County), though sources differ as to whether or not he graduated.
Watkins married Martha Heard Walker on October 3, 1903, and they had one son. Martha died on April 27, 1923, and Watkins married Barbara Laura Sandmeier on December 26, 1944.
From 1899 to 1901, Watkins clerked for Jeff Davis during his service as attorney general and governor. He was also clerk of the Arkansas Commission at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. In December 1905, Watkins went to Washington DC as a stenographer, secretary, and committee clerk for Senator James P. Clarke. When Clarke was elected president pro tempore of the Senate, Watkins became bill clerk in 1914. When Clarke died in 1916, Watkins came under the patronage of Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson of Arkansas, benefiting by Robinson’s rise in the Senate Democratic leadership. In 1919, Watkins was appointed journal clerk of the Senate. The job required him to take notes on the Senate’s proceedings and prepare legislative histories of the bills and resolutions for publication in the annual Senate Journal.
Up to that point, the Senate had no formal parliamentarian because the elder senators felt competent to handle parliamentary procedures. The vice president of the United States, who often had no prior parliamentary-procedure experience, served as president of the Senate. Many turned to the clerks in the chamber for procedural advice when making rulings. Also, freshmen senators often presided in the absence of the vice president, and as parliamentary novices, they, too, required guidance. The Senate’s principal clerk, Henry Rose, had offered procedural advice, but when he became incapacitated by illness in 1923, Watkins took over the role.
A lean, lanky, and slow-talking man with a storehouse of folksy expressions, Watkins possessed a photographic memory. According to Senator John McClellan, Watkins had a “profound understanding of both the letter and the spirit of the rules of the Senate and this equipped him with an almost uncanny capacity to apply a correct interpretation of the Senate rules to every given situation.” He had an astonishing ability to recall not only a specific precedent, but also the date on which it was set and who had been presiding over the Senate at the time. Whenever needed, Watkins would swivel around in his chair and whisper his advice to the presiding officer, who would repeat his words verbatim in making the ruling. This practice caused newspaper reporters to dub Watkins the “Senate’s ventriloquist.” Presiding officers ignored his advice at their own peril, since the senators could overturn a ruling of the chair by a simple majority vote.
In 1935, Watkins’s position was expanded to journal clerk and parliamentarian. In 1937, the functions were split, and Watkins became the Senate’s first parliamentarian. He held that title until his retirement in 1964, when the Senate designated him parliamentarian emeritus. During those years, he took only one protracted leave of absence to serve as parliamentarian for the San Francisco conference of the United Nations in 1945.
Seen by conservatives and liberals in both parties as fair and impartial, Watkins continued as parliamentarian whether Democrats or Republicans held the majority. He supplemented his phenomenal memory by collecting twenty-three notebooks of precedents dating back to the last general revision of the Senate rules in 1884. With his assistant, Floyd Riddick, he organized the thousands of entries into a book titled Senate Procedure: Precedents and Practice (1958).
During Watkins’s long tenure as parliamentarian, the workload of the Senate increased considerably. Even in his seventies and eighties, he showed great physical stamina, staying at his post throughout interminable filibusters. Only when his short-term memory began to fail did he finally retire in 1964, at the age of eighty-five. He died two years later, August 29, 1966, in a nursing home in Maryland and was buried in the Mount Ida Cemetery.
Appreciated for his discretion as well as his parliamentary expertise, Watkins steadfastly declined to write a memoir, reasoning that it would violate too many senatorial confidences. The Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen suggested that, if he did publish a book, he could title it Great Statesmen That I Have Overruled.
For additional information:
“C. L. Watkins, Former Official of Senate, Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, August 30, 1966, p. 9B.
Tributes to Charles L. Watkins, the First Parliamentarian of the Senate, Upon the Occasion of His Retirement and Designationas Parliamentarian Emeritus. S. Doc. 6, 89th Cong., 1st sess. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1965.
Watkins, Charles L. Senate Procedure: Precedents and Practices. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1958.
Donald A. Ritchie
U.S. Senate Historical Office
This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.
Last Updated: 10/01/2020