The Constitution places few limits on who can serve in the House, but it requires that Members be at least 25.
No person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty-five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of the State in which he shall be chosen.U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2, Clause 2
In July 1797, a young southern judge named William Charles Cole Claiborne penned an enthusiastic letter to one of his political mentors, then-Representative Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. Claiborne had his eyes set on serving in Congress. With only two months until the general election in October, and with Jackson leaving for the Senate, Claiborne was eager to win election to Jackson’s soon-to-be vacant seat in the House of Representatives.
“I need not say to you; that I love my Country—That honored with the confidence in my fellow Citizens, like a watchful Centinal [sic] I should carefully guard those Rights and privileges which they had confided to my care,” Claiborne earnestly promised. With support from Jackson and other prominent Tennesseans, there seemed to be few obstacles in Claiborne’s way.
There was, however, one potentially very large problem: Claiborne was not more than 22 years old.
The Constitution places few limits on who can serve in the House, but it requires that Members be at least 25. Initially, the framers had fixed the minimum age at 21, which, at the time, was both the proposed voting age and the age at which people understood adulthood to start.
During the Constitutional Convention, however, George Mason of Virginia suggested that the delegates raise the minimum age to serve in the House to 25, arguing that a Representative “be permitted by the law to make a bargain for himself” for a few years before he “should be authorized to manage the affairs of a great nation.” At 62, Mason was among the oldest of the delegates (the youngest was Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey at 26) and he cited his own “crude and erroneous” political opinions at 21 as the motivation for his proposal.
But even with the change in age, the Virginian still left room for interpretation regarding an individual’s maturity and readiness for office. He conceded that “every man carried with him, in his own experience, a scale for measuring the deficiency of young politicians.” Though he preferred that Members be well-educated before running for office, Mason admitted that “Congress had proved a good school for our young men.” Despite an opposing argument from 45-year-old delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania—who believed Mason’s motion “tended to damp the efforts of genius, and of laudable ambition”—the measure to set the age limit at 25 passed, seven states to three (with New York divided).
Mason’s opinions on maturity and fitness for office, however, were rarely tested in the earliest Federal Congresses when the average age of first-term Representatives hovered around the Constitutional Convention’s average age of 42.
But by the early 19th century, at least five Members were younger than 25 at the constitutional start date of their first Congress (March 4 of every odd year). Back then, however, before the passage of the 20th Amendment set January 3 as the beginning of a new congressional term, the time span between elections and Opening Day of a new Congress often lasted many months. The effect of that lag period meant that in three of the five instances, the Members-elect turned 25 before the new Congress began, saving the House from having to consider a constitutional challenge to their qualifications. Jesse Whartonof Texas, William Rufus de Vane King of North Carolina, and David W. Dickinson of Tennessee were all 24 when they won election, but had turned 25 by the time their respective Congresses opened.
But Claiborne and one other Member-elect, John Young Brown of Kentucky, were not 25 on Opening Day of their first Congresses. Ultimately, one was seated and the other one was not, and the outcome was driven more by circumstance and political style than their age.
The Case of William Charles Cole Claiborne
William Charles Cole Claiborne’s precise birthdate is unknown, but he was born in 1775, in Virginia, the son of a small landowner. Claiborne attended the College of William and Mary before financial difficulties ended his formal education at the age of 15. Claiborne caught a break when fellow Virginian, Clerk of the House John Beckley, hired Claiborne as an enrolling clerk in the 1st Congress (1789–1791). And it was in his service to the House that Claiborne was introduced to another powerful Virginian and future benefactor: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Claiborne later studied law in Virginia before heading to the Tennessee frontier to begin his career as an attorney. When Tennessee became a state in 1796, Claiborne helped draft its constitution. And when yet another Claiborne advocate, former North Carolina Congressman John Sevier, became governor of the new state, he appointed the 21-year-old Claiborne a judge on the Tennessee supreme court.
It appears that Claiborne set his sights on a House seat as early as age 20, right as Tennessee was going through the process of statehood. Upon Tennessee’s admission to the Union, Andrew Jackson was the state’s only Representative in the 4th Congress (1795–1797). But in 1797 Jackson moved to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy following the expulsion of Senator William Blount. With Tennessee’s seat in the House now vacant, Claiborne entered the election to fill it.
Claiborne made no secret of his age during his first campaign, even embracing the symbolism that he was roughly as old as the United States. “It is true,” he wrote to Jackson, “I possess not that useful Knowledge (experience) which generally accompanys [sic] old age: But Sir born about the period, when the wrongs of America first fired her Citizens with resentment, I early formed an attachment for Liberty and my Country. And my greatest pride would consist in contributing to the support of the former, and becoming useful to the latter. But it is not for me to determine how far I deserve the honorable Trust I aspire to, the choice is with my Countrymen.”
Though precise election data is missing for Claiborne’s first campaign, he defeated John Rhea for a seat in the 5th Congress (1797–1799) on October 5, 1797. Claiborne was sworn in 10 days after the new Congress convened on November 23, 1797, joining the Jeffersonian Republican minority. According to the Annals of Congress, his swearing-in was rather perfunctory and generated no opposition. He was no more than 22 years old. Claiborne was re-elected to the 6th Congress(1799–1801), despite being no older than 24, meaning he took the Oath of Office in the House twice while constitutionally too young.
Little if no fuss was ever made over Claiborne’s age, most likely because he had several powerful benefactors in Virginia and Tennessee, but also because he adopted a quiet and contemplative political style that allowed him to blend in to the crowd. Next to the flamboyant styles of other frontier politicians—among them Jackson and Sevier—Claiborne’s biographer noted that “the rather enigmatic Virginian was gentle, patient, and unobtrusive.” “He had not the intellectual depth of Jefferson, [nor] the arrogant panache of Jackson,” another historian later noted. “Whether we characterize Claiborne as good, bad, or merely indifferent, the fact is that he did not, as a man, have much color or drama.”
Claiborne spent his two terms in Congress focusing on his Tennessee constituents and following Jackson’s lead in what his chief biographer described as “brief and sterile congressional service.” After his two terms in the House, he served a long political career out West: Claiborne was appointed the governor of the Mississippi Territory after relocating there in 1801 and was among the commissioners carrying out the Louisiana Purchase on Jefferson’s behalf in 1803. He would eventually serve as Louisiana Governor and was elected U.S. Senator from that state, but died in 1817 before he could take his seat.
To date, Claiborne is the youngest Member to have ever served in the House of Representatives.
The Case of John Young Brown of Kentucky
Representative John Young Brown of Kentucky is the only known Member-elect to have had his swearing-in delayed due to his age. Elected as a Democrat to the 36th Congress (1859–1861) at age 23, contemporary newspapers accounts described him as “a youth of remarkably fine qualities of heart and intellect,” and “a young but able and attractive speaker.” But the Kentuckian entered a more contentious House than the one in which Claiborne had served. Wracked with nearly impassible differences over slavery on the eve of the Civil War, the Republican majority in the House seems to have pounced on the young, Southern Democrat’s age as a means to delay his swearing-in and maintain their numerical advantage.
Born on June 28, 1835, in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Brown was the son of a trader and local politician. After attending Centre College in 1855, he studied and practiced law in his hometown. In 1859 Brown was elected to the 36th Congress over an Independent Democrat, Joshua Jewett, with 57 percent of the vote. Immediately, newswires picked up on his youth, even making light of his middle name: John Young Brown.
As per the Constitution, the 36th Congress began on March 4, 1859, when Brown was 23 years, 8 months, and 5 days; on the actual Opening Day of that Congress, December 5, 1859, he was still too young at 24 years, 5 months, and 8 days. Brown is listed in the roll of Members-elect in the Congressional Globe, but is not listed among the official Members in the House Journal and doesn’t vote for Speaker. Remarkably, there is no debate in official congressional sources about Brown’s qualifications, and, similarly, there is no record of Brown protesting the decision not to seat him.
While Brown waited until his 25th birthday in June 1860, he canvassed for Democratic presidential candidate Stephen Douglas. Three days before he turned 25, the House adjourned for the first session. Brown was eventually seated on the first day of the second session of the 36th Congress on December 3, 1860, at the age of 25 years, 5 months, 6 days.
Brown’s age was the ostensible reason for his delayed admission to the House. But it is likely, though not explicitly stated, that the sectional and party divisions so prevalent in Congress just prior to the Civil War also contributed to Brown’s delayed swearing-in. While most newspapers cited his young age, journalists supporting Democrats hinted at political motives behind the decision not to seat him. “One or two such cases, perhaps more, have occurred before, in the history the government,” noted a correspondent for the Lowell Daily Citizen and News in Massachusetts. “But where a member presents himself without a competitor, it will always be found an ungracious task to attempt to oust him simply on account of his years.” The newspaperman wryly concluded: “And, when once in, a member would not be apt to be very communicative on that subject [of age].”
Unlike Claiborne, Brown did not adopt a low-key political style. In fact, the young politician’s hot temper defined his political career. During the Civil War, Brown sided with the Confederacy. After the Union victory, Brown tried to re-enter Congress but the House declared his seat in the 40th Congress (1867–1869) vacant due to his previous disloyalty; Brown’s prominently published threats of violence against any federal soldiers in the early days of the Civil War still angered Union loyalists in Congress. Brown would return to Congress a few years later, only to be censured for the use of unparliamentary language in the 43rd Congress (1873–1875) during a debate over the civil rights billwhen the Kentuckian hurled a personal insult at the bill’s champion in the House, Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts.
Ever since Claiborne entered the House, no other Representative has been seated before his or her 25th birthday. In fact, House service for Members elected before their 30th birthday has been relatively rare. While nearly 400 Members in their 20s have served in the House, they represent less than half a percent of everyone who has ever taken the oath as a Representative.
- Annals of Congress, 5th Cong., 1st sess. (23 November 1797): 630
- House Journal, 36th Cong., 1st sess. (5 December 1859): 7
- Congressional Globe, 36th Cong., 1st sess. (5 December 1859): 2
- Congressional Globe, 36th Cong., 1st sess. (18 June 1860): 3125
- Congressional Globe, 36th Cong., 2nd sess. (3 December 1860): 2; House Committee on Elections, Samuel E. Smith vs. John Young Brown, 40th Cong., 2nd sess. H. Rept. 11 (1868)
- Lowell Daily Statesman, 10 August 1859
- North American and United States Gazette, 12 August 1859; Weekly Raleigh Register (Raleigh, NC), 17 August 1859
- Semi-Weekly Mississippian, 21 August 1859; The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Wheeling, WV), 10 December 1859
- Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, VA), 21 December 1859
- Joseph T. Hatfield, William Claiborne: Jeffersonian Centurion in the American Southwest (Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana Press, 1976)
- R. Randall Couch, “William Charles Cole Claiborne: An Historiographical Review,” Louisiana History, vol. 36, no. 4 (Autumn 1995): 453–465
- Sam B. Smith and Harriet Chappell Owsley, eds., The Papers of Andrew Jackson: Volume 1, 1770–1803 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980)
- Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998
- Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1833
- Robert M. Ireland, “Brown, John Young,” American National Biography Online, http://www.anb.org/
- “Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention,” accessed 5 December 2018, The Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/.