JESSE JACKSON has just captured his first elective post and will soon go to work as a Democratic shadow senator from the District of Columbia, pressing a "moral crusade" for D.C. statehood.

But what in the world is a shadow senator? What do they do? What role have they played in the American political system?

The concept of a shadow senator dates to the mid-1790s when settlers of the Southwest Territory, formerly part of North Carolina and destined to become the state of Tennessee, were confident of entering the Union but unsure of the procedures for joining. Assuming that organizing a government and possessing a requisite population would guarantee admission, Gov. William Blount and the constitutional convention elected a legislature in March 1796. The state's new General Assembly promptly named Blount and William Cocke to the Senate.

The men arrived in Philadelphia, then the capital, only to find that Congress had not yet admitted Tennessee to the Union -- a move delayed until June 1, 1796 when pro-statehood Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans prevailed over Federalist opponents. Should Blount and Cocke make the arduous, 600-mile trek back to Knoxville or hang around the City of Brotherly Love?

They decided to stay when the Senate leadership courteously provided seats on the Senate floor where the newcomers could review the proceedings but not vote. From the observer status accorded Blount and Cooke sprang the idea of "shadow senator" -- a term not known to be employed until the 20th century. No evidence exists that either shadow senator took part in debates, according to Assistant Senate Historian Jo Anne McCormick Quatannens.

Even after Tennessee was granted statehood, a motion to swear in Blount and Cocke failed, 10 to 11. Why? Apparently because Congress, as jealous of its prerogatives then as now, had not authorized their selection. Not to worry. A special session of the Volunteer State's legislature reelected the two men, who took their seats on Dec. 6, 1796. Blount, a greedy land speculator, lasted only seven months before the Senate expelled him for conspiring against Spanish Louisiana and Florida.

Despite its fondness for precedent, the Senate deviated from the Tennessee Plan and did not assign floor seats to senators elected from areas that became the states of Michigan (1837), California (1850) and Minnesota (1858). When a boundary dispute with Ohio delayed Michigan's entry into the Union, its shadow senators were seated outside the official Senate area. The issue of installing senators was eclipsed by California's quest for statehood without going through the territorial stage. Still, a common denominator in all three cases was the refusal of Dixie legislators to support the admission of any free or potentially nonslave state to the Union without its being paired with a slave state.

Once compromises enabled the states to gain entry, however, their shadow senators were sworn in without having to seek reelection. The immediate seating of these men marked another departure from the Tennessee Plan and riled Southerners. Yet the Senate leadership prevailed. Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi lost on a motion to refer the validity of the credentials of the California senators, William M. Gwin and John C. Fre'mont, to the Judiciary Committee. Davis's fellow Mississippian, Rep. Albert Brown, fared no better when he challenged the seating of James Shields (who ultimately served as a U.S. senator from three states) because his election occurred before Minnesota attained statehood. These grounds were dismissed as "metaphysical" by New York Sen. William H. Seward.

No such protests engulfed Joseph Lane, a pro-slavery former territorial governor, and Delazon Smith, a lawyer nicknamed "Delusion" by his foes, whom the Oregon legislature chose in mid-1858, seven months before the territory became the 33rd state. The selection of the shadow senators after Congress had adjourned obviated any dispute over their perks.

Relying on the Tennessee model, Alaska elected Ernest Gruening, ex-territorial governor and noted journalist, and William A. Egan, a veteran legislator, to the Senate on Oct. 6, 1956. This was more than two years before President Eisenhower signed the proclamation that made Alaska the first noncontiguous state. Pursuant to an agreement with the Senate hierarchy, Gruening and Egan were given seats in the diplomatic gallery until Alaska's star was added to the flag. Then the shadow senators would have to stand for reelection before shifting from spectators to participants in Senate activities. The men used their time in Washington to make calls on every member of the 85th Congress in behalf of Alaska statehood. Gruening successfully ran for reelection; Egan chose instead to serve as the state's first governor. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey commended both Alaskans for "never intruding or obtruding themselves at inconvenient moments . . . ."

Whether welcomed observers before statehood or seat-takers afterwards, a majority of the shadow senators did three things. First, they served as advocates for their territory's admission to the Union. Second, to propitiate Capitol Hill bigwigs, they followed the unwritten rules for newcomers by "going along to get along" and "being seen rather than heard." Finally, they went on to higher office, usually as full-fledged U.S. senators.

While Jesse Jackson, fellow shadow senator Florence Pendleton and shadow congressman Charles Moreland -- all elected Tuesday -- can be counted on to spread the gospel for D.C. statehood, it's not at all clear that Congress will provide them much of a forum. Their positions are unofficial and unpaid and were only vaguely defined when created by the D.C. City Council last March. No matter how the process works out, few Congress-watchers believe that Jackson and his colleagues will follow the low-key tradition established by their shadow predecessors.

George Grayson is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and teaches government at the College of William & Mary.