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What is a Sergeant-At-Arms?

By Bill C.
Updated May 23, 2024
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In everyday terminology, a sergeant-at-arms is normally considered to be the person responsible for maintaining order at any kind of meeting. Most legislative and judicial bodies elect individuals to the office, as do many fraternal and social organizations. The role of office holders is becoming increasingly ceremonial. Keeping order initially meant that sergeants-at-arms were charged with ejecting disruptive people from meetings by force when requested by the organization's leader. That type of request is becoming rather rare in present-day meetings and proceedings.

The office of sergeant-at-arms can vary significantly from organization to organization. The job descriptions of the individuals holding the title in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, for example, are quite different. In the House of Representatives, the sergeant-at-arms is elected by its members when each Congress begins and assumes responsibilities that include ensuring protocol, enforcing rules and regulations, and performing administrative duties.

The Senate sergeant-at-arms adds to those responsibilities several specific major functions. He or she is the executive officer of the Senate, wielding the gavel at every session and possessing the authority to summon the presence of any senators who may be absent. Additional duties range from responsibility for overseeing day-to-day security operations for the Capitol and Senate to managing the Senate's complex computer and technology services. The official title for the post in the Senate is “Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper.” The latter part of the title traces back to initial sessions when the general public was barred from the chambers and the doorkeeper's job was to enforce that policy.

The sergeant-at-arms designation dates back to the Middle Ages and the English feudal system. The word sergeant is rooted in the Latin name for servant. Feudal lords appointed sergeants-at-arms to be armed officers responsible for protecting them. Those holding the title were also often assigned to special duties in personal service to the king. They frequently accompanied the monarch as mounted armed guards on travel and ventures into battle. One of their primary responsibilities was usually also to arrest traitors and criminals guilty of committing other offenses against the crown.

Responsibilities of individuals holding the office gradually expanded to collecting taxes, keeping the peace, and bringing to justice anyone interfering with local government and justice. Duties further grew to include disciplinary actions necessary to ensure orderly courtroom, parliamentary, municipal, and ceremonial proceedings. Continued evolution of the sergeant-at-arms concept led to its commonly understood meaning in modern society.

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Discussion Comments
By indemnifyme — On Sep 30, 2011

@ceilingcat - Maybe I've seen too many movies set in the medieval period, but when I think of a sergeant-at-arms, I definitely think of a knight or something. Possibly wearing armor! Not a United States government official!

Still, language evolves and the meaning for certain terms definitely changes over the years. I guess this is one of those instances.

I personally think it would be fun to say that your job was to be a sergeant-at-arms. It sounds cool at least!

By ceilingcat — On Sep 29, 2011

I had no idea we had anyone called a "sergeant-at-arms" in the United States government. Very interesting.

I can imagine such a thing would be necessary though. I know both the House of Representatives and the Senate discuss tough issues. I could see some of the political representatives getting a little bit out of control and maybe breaking a few rules of decorum!

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