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1820 - 1861: HOLDING THE UNION TOGETHER

In the 1800s, slavery was a topic of heated debate in Congress among slave states from the largely agricultural South and free states from the industrializing North. Northern abolitionists fueled tensions between the North and South through petitions and protests. Conflicts also erupted over the status of new Western territories entering the Union. Would they allow or prohibit slavery? Congress enacted compromises in 1820 and 1850 to settle these disputes, but by 1861 those compromises could no longer hold the Union together. Despite the departure of congressmen from seceded states in 1860 and 1861, legislative duties and work on a Capitol expansion continued, reflecting the hope that the Union would be restored.

March 3, 1820: Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise was the first major legislative compromise passed to settle the slavery issue by drawing a line between slave and free territory. Speaker of the House Henry Clay promoted the deal, which admitted Maine to the Union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. The act prohibited slavery in territories and new states above the 36º 30´ latitude line, with the exception of Missouri, and maintained a balance in the Senate between slave and free states.

General Map of the United States, by Henry Rogers, 1857

General Map of the United States, by Henry Rogers, 1857

1836 - 1844: Gag Rule

In the late 1830s, Congress received more than 130,000 petitions from citizens demanding the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., and other federally-controlled territories. In 1836, the House passed a resolution to its rules of procedure which banned the discussion of these petitions. The so-called “gag rule” was reinforced in 1839, 1841 and 1843 as part of the rules readopted by the House with each new Congress. However, Representative and former President John Quincy Adams, who considered the gag rule a violation of his constituents’ First Amendment rights, used creative tactics to stir debate on the floor. In 1844, the House repealed the gag rule on a motion made by Adams.

John Quincy Adams’s Ivory Cane, 1844

John Quincy Adams’s Ivory Cane, 1844

Petition from Women of Brookline, Massachusetts, 1836

Petition from Women of Brookline, Massachusetts, 1836

Gag Rule, 1837

Gag Rule, 1837

September 9, 1850: Compromise of 1850

After war with Mexico added new territories to the Southwest, the issue of slavery’s expansion gained renewed urgency. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky championed a series of compromise measures in an effort to heal the growing rift between the northern and southern states. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts spoke eloquently in defense of the compromise, while Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina opposed the plan. With the guidance of Stephen Douglas of Illinois, Congress eventually passed revised versions of Clay’s proposed bills, known collectively as the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise admitted California to the Union as a free state, allowed the territories of New Mexico and Utah to decide the slavery issue for themselves, and settled a Texas boundary and debt issue. While it abolished slave trade in the District of Columbia, it strengthened the existing Fugitive Slave Law by requiring free states to return escaped slaves to their owners.

The United States Senate, A.D. 1850

The United States Senate, A.D. 1850

July 4, 1851: Cornerstone Laid for Capitol Expansion

While the nation’s expansion intensified the slavery debate, the increasing number of representatives and senators outgrew congressional chambers. In 1850, architects submitted designs for an expansion. The Senate and House could not agree on how to best expand the Capitol, so the decision was left to President Millard Fillmore. As a compromise, he chose the architect favored by the House, Thomas U. Walter of Philadelphia, and the plans favored by the Senate. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1851, beginning 17 years of construction that included new House and Senate wings, the iconic Dome and additional improvements.

Winning Design for the Capitol Expansion, 1851

Winning Design for the Capitol Expansion, 1851

House Members’ Double Desk, ca. 1857, altered ca. 1865

House Members’ Double Desk, ca. 1857, altered ca. 1865

1853 - 1859: Capitol Expansion Engineer

Captain Montgomery Meigs of the U.S. army Corps of Engineers oversaw the construction of the Capitol extension, including the House and Senate wings and the Dome. He hired artist Constantino Brumidi to design and paint murals, including frescoes for the interior spaces. Meigs commissioned sculptor Thomas Crawford to design the Statue of Freedom for the top of the Dome.

General Montgomery Meigs, ca. 1860-1865

General Montgomery Meigs, ca. 1860-1865

Journal of Montgomery Meigs, March 4, 1861

Journal of Montgomery Meigs, March 4, 1861

1850s - 1870s: Constantino Brumidi

Before the Civil War, Italian immigrant Constantino Brumidi worked with teams of artists to create colorful murals on the Capitol walls. His murals celebrated nature and classical themes, as well as American history, values and ingenuity. He continued to paint frescoes in the Capitol during and after the Civil War.

West End of Brumidi Corridors

West End of Brumidi Corridors

Constantino Brumidi, ca. 1866

Constantino Brumidi, ca. 1866

May 30, 1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act

Introduced by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act granted the residents of these territories “popular sovereignty,” or the power to decide whether to allow slavery. The act repealed part of the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery above the 36° 30´ latitude. It sparked violence in Kansas when pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers fought for control of the territory. Much to Douglas’s dismay, the conflict fueled tensions between the North and South and brought the nation closer to civil war.

Reynolds’s Political Map of the United States, ca. 1856

Reynolds’s Political Map of the United States, ca. 1856

"Liberty, The Fair Maid of Kansas, in the Hands of the Border Ruffians, 1856"

1855: The Capitol's New Dome

In 1855 Congress voted to replace the old Dome with a fireproof cast-iron Dome designed by Thomas U. Walter. When workers removed the old Dome in 1856, they built a temporary roof over the Rotunda. Steam-powered derricks lifted the new Dome’s cast-iron pieces into place. Contractors continued construction during the war, despite being warned not to expect payment. Many saw this as a sign that the Union would also continue. The 9-million-pound Dome was topped on December 2, 1863, with the Statue of Freedom, and completed in January 1866.

Capitol Dome Design, 1859

Capitol Dome Design, 1859

Thomas U. Walter’s Drafting Tools

Thomas U. Walter’s Drafting Tools

1856 - 1858: The Slavery Debate Escalates

The violence erupting in Kansas as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act spilled over into the halls of Congress. In 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane because he condemned the pro-slavery views of Brooks’s relative, Senator Andrew Butler. Two years later in a late night House session, a brawl involving more than 50 representatives broke out over the expansion of slavery into Western territories. The fight ended in comedy when one member snatched an opponent’s wig, exclaiming “I’ve scalped him!” Despite the levity, the brawl was seen as a foreboding sign of conflicts to come.

"Southern Chivalry: Argument versus Club’s, 1856"

Sumner vs. Brooks Silver Goblet, ca. 1856

Sumner vs. Brooks Silver Goblet, ca. 1856

"Congressional Row, in the U. S. House of Representatives, Midnight of Friday, February 5th, 1858"

December 16, 1857 - January 4, 1859: New Congressional Chambers

The House of Representatives moved into its new chamber on December 16, 1857, while the Senate first occupied its new chamber on January 4, 1859. The enlarged chambers featured wrought iron and glass ceilings and improved heating and ventilating systems. Though enlarged to accommodate a rapidly growing Union, the secession of 11 states in 1860 and 1861 left many seats empty.

The House of Representatives, U.S. Capitol, 1866

The House of Representatives, U.S. Capitol, 1866

The United States Senate in Session in their New Chamber

The United States Senate in Session in their New Chamber

December 24, 1860 - May 20, 1861: Secession from the Union

On November 10, 1860, just four days after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, James Chestnut of South Carolina became the first senator to leave the Senate and join the Confederate cause. On December 24, 1860, South Carolina representatives were the first to leave Congress by declaring their state’s secession and announcing their departure from Congress. On January 21, 1861, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis and four other southern senators delivered farewell addresses to a packed chamber. By June, 11 states had seceded from the Union and most of their representatives had left Congress. They formed the Confederate States of America under the leadership of President Jefferson Davis. Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson was the only Senator to remain in the Senate after his state seceded.

Jefferson Davis, ca. 1860

Jefferson Davis, ca. 1860

"The Last Delegation from South Carolina in the Congress of the United States"