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THEME: MOVERS AND SHAKERS IN CONGRESS

The tumultuous years of the 1850s and 1860s attracted to Congress some brilliant and dedicated senators and representatives. Speaker of the House Galusha Grow and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens exercised adroit skills in articulating a plan for a bi-racial society and aggressively pursued a rigid plan for Reconstruction. In the Senate, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Charles Sumner, and Stephen Douglas delivered masterful oratory and impassioned arguments.

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

October 21, 1861: Senator Slain in Battle

Oregon Senator Edward Baker, a Mexican War veteran and confidant of President Lincoln, led 1,200 Union troops across the Potomac River in an attempt to take Leesburg, Virginia. His brigade was stopped by rebel forces at Ball’s Bluff, where they suffered heavy casualties, including Senator Baker. He became the first and only sitting senator to die in a military engagement. Eighty years later, the War Department banned active duty service of all members during the early months of World War II.

"Death of Col. Baker"

Senator Edward Baker, ca. 1861

Senator Edward Baker, ca. 1861

1864: The Wade-Davis Bill

While the war still raged on in 1864, Senator Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Winter Davis of Maryland devised a plan to rebuild the Union when the war ended. Their proposal, known as the Wade-Davis Bill, would require Confederate states to amend their constitutions to grant suffrage to African Americans. It also stipulated that 50 percent of males in each former Confederate state had to take the loyalty oath before the state could be readmitted to representation in the Union. President Lincoln wanted a more lenient and tolerant plan, however, so he pocket-vetoed the bill. Although the plan never came to fruition, it did set the stage for the Radical Republicans’ postwar agenda.

Representative Davis and Senator Wade

Representative Davis and Senator Wade

June 13, 1866: Thaddeus Stevens and Reconstruction

In a speech to the House of Representatives on July 13, 1866, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a leader among the Radical Republicans, urged passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Stevens viewed the amendment and Reconstruction as a means to create the “perfect republic,” where all citizens would enjoy equal rights and all institutions would be freed from “human oppression.” He became one of the most outspoken advocates for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, whom he felt stood in the way of this ideal.

Representative Thaddeus Stevens

Representative Thaddeus Stevens

February 25, 1870: Hiram Revels

A hearty round of applause greeted Mississippi Senator-elect Hiram Revels as he entered the Senate Chamber to take his oath of office and become the first African American in Congress. A former teacher, Revels served on the Committee on Education and Labor and was an advocate for the education of former slaves.

Senator Hiram Revels

Senator Hiram Revels

December 12, 1870: Joseph Rainey

South Carolina Representative Joseph Rainey was the first African American elected to the House of Representatives. During Reconstruction, 14 African Americans served in the House and two in the Senate. Eight of these men had been born into slavery, while six were born free. After 1901, however, because of Jim Crow laws in the South that disenfranchised blacks, no African Americans sat in either house of Congress for nearly three decades.

"The First Colored Senator and Representatives," 1872

March 1875 - 1881: Blanche Bruce

Mississippi Senator Blanche K. Bruce, born into slavery, advocated for the fair treatment of African-American servicemen and even tried to desegregate the U.S. Army, though this attempt failed. He is the only person born into slavery ever to preside over the Senate floor.

Blanche Kelso Bruce

Blanche Kelso Bruce