A More Perfect Union

For more than two hundred years, the Capitol has been the place where representatives of the American people have debated how best to achieve the nation's ideals. This exhibit displays some of our most important documents, drawn primarily from the collections of the Library of Congress and the National Archives, to illustrate the role of Congress in defining and helping to realize national goals and aspirations.

See More

The Congress shall have Power To ... provide for the ... general Welfare

Congress is charged by the Constitution with providing for the general welfare of the country's citizens. Historically, this has meant improving transportation, promoting agriculture and industry, protecting health and the environment, and seeking ways to solve social and economic problems. These documents reflect Congressional actions to ensure "the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Providing Economic Security

Congress passed the Social Security Act in the midst of the Great Depression. It authorized taxes on workers and employers to provide for the elderly, the unemployed, dependent children and the disabled. The legislation addressed the concerns of popular grassroots movements that advocated for federal old-age pensions and relief for those without jobs.

Protecting Natural Resources - 2

The development of the West brought an ever-increasing number of settlers. When resources became depleted or despoiled, voices were raised to preserve the West’s scenic lands and their fragile environments. In 1864, Congress acted. Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias became the first parklands set aside by the federal government. They were initially granted to the state of California and later became a National Park in 1890. Yosemite was made part of the National Park Service when it was established by Congress in 1916.

Building a Transcontinental Railroad

Throughout the 19th century, Congress debated its responsibility for “internal improvements,” particularly regarding interstate transportation. In the 1850s, as need increased for more efficient transport to the Pacific coast, Congress commissioned surveys to determine the best rail route through the West. Private companies would not construct a project of such scale without federal support, so citizens appealed for government backing. Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, and a transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.

General Welfare from Past Exhibitions

    Receipts for homestead applications of George Caldwell, Gainesville, Florida; and Lucinda Lockhart, San Francisco, California; November 10, 1875

    Two very different homestead applications were among those filed on November 10, 1875. George Caldwell submitted his claim to a homestead in Gainesville, Florida, where he had farmed for five years. Lucinda Lockhart, widow of a soldier, based her claim on her husband’s military service and requested that it be transferred from Arkansas to California.

    Records of the Bureau of Land Management, National Archives and Records Administration

  • H.R. 125, The Homestead Act, printed House bill with Senate changes, March 3, 1862

    Congress passed the Homestead Act during the Civil War and included in the legislation a bounty for Union soldiers, who could deduct their period of military service from the five-year residency required for title to the land. Homesteads were granted only to those who had “never borne arms against the United States government.”

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    To secure homesteads to actual settlers on the public domain, and to provide a bounty for soldiers, in lieu of grants of the public lands.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • S. 416, The Homestead Act, June 20, 1860

    Congress passed this Homestead Act over Southern opposition in 1860, only to have President James Buchanan veto it. Within a year the South seceded and Abraham Lincoln, who supported the legislation, was president. In 1862 Speaker of the House Galusha A. Grow of Pennsylvania and Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee advanced a new Homestead Act into law.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • S. 203, 38th Congress, Regarding Yosemite Valley, May 17, 1864

    This bill, signed into law by President Lincoln on June 30, 1864, represents the first time the federal government acted to protect and preserve scenic lands. Conservationists persuaded Senator John Conness to introduce a bill to keep Yosemite Valley from being ruined by increasing commerce and tourism. The bill granted Yosemite to the state of California.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

    The Medicare Act, 1965

    This official copy of the Medicare Act bears the signatures of the Speaker of the House, the Vice President and the President. The notation of the place, date, and time of the signing is unusual. The president’s uneven signature results from his using multiple pens—gifts to key sponsors of the bill.

    General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives and Records Administration

    Transportation Routes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, 1839

    Technological advances in the 19th century helped build a transportation network vital to the nation’s growth and unity. Canals traversed unnavigable portions of rivers and coastal waterways. Steam engines powered boats and trains.

    Map of New Jersey and Pennsylvania Exhibiting the Post Offices, Post Roads, Canals, Rail Roads, & C., by David H. Burr, 1839

    Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

  • H.R. 6543, A bill to extend public health protection with respect to cigarette smoking, June 19, 1969

    Surgeon generals’ reports on smoking and health in 1964 and 1969 prompted Congress to mandate health warnings on all cigarette packages. In 1965, Congress required cigarette labels to state: "Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health." In this bill, Congress—for the first time—required manufacturers to cite the surgeon general’s warning.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    "Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health and May Cause Lung Cancer or Other Diseases."

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • S. 88, Draft bill of the Pure Food and Drug Act, December 14, 1905

    Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle revealed unsanitary conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants, arousing public demand for food safety. For the first time, Congress took responsibility for consumer protection by passing the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which banned the manufacture and sale of any adulterated, harmful, or mislabeled food, beverage, or drug product.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    A BILL For preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors…

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

    Photographs by Lewis Hine for the National Child Labor Committee

    Sociologist Lewis Hine used photography as a tool for social reform. Working for the National Child Labor Committee from 1908 to 1924, Hine photographed children laboring in tenement workshops, mines, fields, and industries throughout the country. Hine’s images touched the public conscience, aroused support for child labor reform, and provided evidence to support legislation limiting child labor.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • H.R. 12634, A bill to encourage instruction in the hygiene of maternity and infancy..., July 1, 1918

    Montana Representative Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, introduced this bill to address critical health needs of mothers and infants through clinics and health education. Childbirth was a leading cause of death for women, and the U.S. lagged behind many nations in infant mortality. A version of this bill became the Sheppard-Towner Act in 1921.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Petition in support of national parks from the California Associated Societies for the Conservation of Wildlife, March 31, 1916

    Various groups petitioned Congress to support the creation of a National Park Service in 1916. They argued that a centralized administration would provide more efficient management of the areas Congress set aside for preservation and public use. Here, petitioners urge Congress to consider the importance of the parks as an asset for the entire country.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    Our National Parks are one of the greatest assets of the American nation, and should therefore be given the utmost care and consideration.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

  • A Senate committee obtained this photograph in the 1940s.

    A Senate committee obtained this photograph in the 1940s. Congress studied the conditions of U.S. roads—like this muddy one in Tennessee—in the buildup to the interstate highway system.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

    Letter from Representative Sereno E. Payne to Representative George Ray on behalf of Harriet Tubman Davis, February 5, 1898

    Abolitionist Harriet Tubman Davis aided the Union as a scout, nurse, cook and spy during the Civil War. She received a pension as the widow of Union veteran Nelson Davis, but later petitioned Congress for additional benefits for her own service. Representative Sereno E. Payne of New York supported her claim with this persuasive letter.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    I hand you herewith papers in the claim of Harriet Tubman Davis…Claim for increase is because of her own personal services in the war. She was employed as nurse, cook in the Hospital, and spy during nearly the whole period of the war.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

  • H.R. 737, Appropriation for Sundry Civil Expenses of the Government for the year ending June 30th, 1867

    The amendment to this appropriations act authorized printing of the first volume of the Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion and a separate statistical publication. Under the secretary of war, the surgeon general oversaw the medical research—which concluded in 1888 with six detailed, illustrated volumes covering every aspect of Civil War military medicine.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    For the purpose of preparing for publication under the direction of the Secretary of War…five thousand copies of the first volume of the Medical and Surgical History of the Rebellion, compiled by the Surgeon General… .

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Land order for Richard Brown, April 1, 1865 (Charleston, South Carolina)

    In January 1865 General William T. Sherman authorized the confiscation of Confederate land along the AtlanticCoast for redistribution into 40-acre tracts to be given to newly freed African Americans such as freedman Richard Brown. Later that year President Andrew Johnson ended this land redistribution and returned captured properties to pardoned former landowners.

    Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives and Records Administration

    General Affidavit of Harriet Tubman Davis Regarding Payment from Government for Services Rendered During the Civil War, ca. 1898

    Abolitionist Harriet Tubman Davis aided the Union as a scout, nurse, cook and spy during the Civil War. She received a pension as the widow of Union veteran Nelson Davis, but later petitioned Congress for additional benefits for her own service. In 1899 Congress approved an increase in her pension for her services as a nurse.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

     

    My claim against the U.S. is for three years services as nurse and cook in hospitals, and as commander of several men (eight or nine) as scouts during the late War of the Rebellion

    Letter from Salmon P. Chase to Representative Thaddeus Stevens, January 29, 1862

    In this letter to Thaddeus Stevens, Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase revealed his ambivalence about making paper notes legal tender as the House of Representatives debated the Legal Tender Act. Chase abhorred making paper notes legal tender, but recognized the need for urgent action.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

     

    The condition of the Treasury certainly renders immediate action on the subject of affording provision for the expenditures of the Government both expedient and necessary.

  • Diary of Samuel Denham Barnes, December 10th, 1865 Entry

    Under the auspices of the War Department, the Freedmen’s Bureau assigned army officers like Lieutenant Samuel Denham Barnes—Brevet Captain of the 72nd Illinois Infantry Regiment in the Civil War—to organize bureau activities throughout the South. Barnes’s diary describes his experiences in Mississippi, where he worked with formerly enslaved people to establish local schools.

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

  • S. 598, An Act for the relief of unemployment through the performance of useful public work and for other purposes, March 31, 1933

    Within weeks of receiving a presidential message from Franklin Roosevelt concerning relief of unemployment, Congress passed this emergency act authorizing a Civilian Conservation Corps. The act provided for housing, meals, medical care, education and payment to citizens who would work on public projects conserving forests, rivers, parks and reservation lands.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    …for the purpose of relieving the acute condition of widespread distress and unemployment now existing in the United States, and in order to provide for the restoration of the country’s depleted natural resources and the advancement of an orderly program of useful public works…

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

  • “Light,” Rural Electrification Administration, n.d.

    The Rural Electrification Administration enhanced the lives of rural populations by supporting local efforts to produce and distribute electricity. During the New Deal era, Congress created many agencies and programs aimed at ameliorating the effects of the Depression. Such agencies employed artists to create posters like this one to advertise their work.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Message to Congress on the Tennessee Valley Authority, April 10, 1933

    During his first hundred days in office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked expeditiously with Congress to enact a wide range of legislation, including the creation of a Tennessee Valley Authority. He asked Congress to charter a federal corporation “with the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise” to oversee conservation efforts and economic modernization in the Tennessee River basin.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Sod House, Pennington County, South Dakota, photograph by Arthur Rothstein, May 1936

    A South Dakota homesteader posed by his sod house in 1936. Approximately two million claims were made under the Homestead Act.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • “Freedom of the Public Lands!!!” petition from citizens of New York, 1860

    The acquisition of western territories from Mexico intensified public pressure on Congress to open those areas to settlement. These New York State petitioners asked Congress to end the sale of public land at high prices that resulted in monopolies by large landowners. Instead, they wanted smaller plots to be given freely to settlers for farming.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

  • President James Buchanan’s veto of S. 416, the Homestead Act, June 22, 1860

    In vetoing Congress’s homestead legislation of 1860, President James Buchanan presented several arguments, including that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to give away public lands. Buchanan, a Democrat, supported Southern interests who feared small farmers would outnumber slaveholders and tip the nation’s political balance against the South.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Yosemite Valley, by William Henry Jackson, ca. 1898

    William Henry Jackson’s photographs showing the beauty of the American West helped persuade Congress to establish a system of national parks. Jackson, who moved to Nebraska in 1866, spent much of his life photographing railroads and the natural wonders of the West.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

    President Johnson’s White House Daily Diary, July 30, 1965

    President Johnson traveled to Independence, Missouri, to sign the Medicare Act in the presence of former president Harry S. Truman, who had proposed similar legislation in his 1949 State of the Union address. The daily diary lists the Congressional leaders who accompanied President Johnson.

    National Archives and Records Administration, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Austin, Texas

  • Petition for Post Roads, January 8, 1844

    Citizens of Springfield, Illinois, petitioned their members of Congress for this direct mail route, which would reduce delivery time between northeastern cities and Springfield from 10 to 12 days to only 36 hours. One petitioner was Abraham Lincoln, then a lawyer in Springfield.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • President George Bush’s Nomination of Antonia Coello Novello to be Surgeon General, January 23, 1990

    Dr. Antonia Novello, nominated by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, was the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as surgeon general. She used the power of her office to focus on health problems of women, minorities, and youth. Novello targeted AIDS, drug abuse, underage smoking and drinking, and cigarette advertising aimed at children.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • FDA poster by Ohio Works Progress Administration Art Program, ca. 1930s

    The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act laid the groundwork for the modern Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the oldest U.S. consumer protection agency. The FDA regulates many aspects of the production and distribution of foods, beverages, drugs, and other medical products. This FDA poster warned truckers not to transport milk from farms stricken by disease outbreaks.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • H.R. 8234, A Bill for an Act to Prevent Interstate Commerce in the Products of Child Labor, January 17, 1916 [Keating-Owen Child Labor Act]

    In the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, Congress restricted child labor through its power to regulate interstate commerce. The act limited children’s working hours and prohibited the interstate sale of goods produced by child labor. President Woodrow Wilson signed the act into law in 1916, but the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. The Court reversed its opinion in 1941.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

    Letter from Mrs. Mae C. Mitchell opposing the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Bill, December 7, 1920

    This letter’s author opposed the Sheppard-Towner bill, arguing "for the sake of ... motherhood" that the federal government should not encroach on physicians' authority and livelihoods. Later lawsuits challenged the constitutionality of the program’s funding. Though the Supreme Court dismissed those cases, the challenges and opposition dissuaded Congress from renewing the act in 1929.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    The Public Health Service is a splendid institution, for health, but motherhood is a sacred institution, and not a public one…

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

  • The National Parks Preserve Wild Life. Poster, ca. 1939

    The National Park Service conserves the scenic, natural, and historic heritage of the United States through parklands. J. Hirt, an artist with the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), created this poster in 1939. It celebrates the preservation of wildlife—one of the many missions of the National Park Service.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • H.R. 10660, Federal Highway Act of 1956

    Congress committed $24.8 billion to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The thirteen-year plan regulated design and construction standards and supported 41,000 miles of new and improved highways, linking all parts of the nation with a modern transportation system for an increasingly mobile populace.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

  • Harriet Tubman Davis, 1911

    Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and led hundreds of fugitives to freedom, used her knowledge and skills as a scout to assist Union troops during the Civil War.

     

    Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

  • Photograph, Private Samuel H. Decker, Co. I, 4th U. S. Artillery, November 29, 1867

    Army surgeons learned much about effective trauma treatment during the Civil War. Many wounded soldiers survived as amputees—among them, Samuel H. Decker, whose hands were destroyed in a gun accident during the 1862 battle of Perryville, Kentucky. Decker designed his own prostheses to adapt to his disability. He later served as doorkeeper for the House of Representatives.

    National Museum of Health and Medicine

    Ink and Watercolor Drawings, Illustration of Harriet Tubman and the Escape from Slavery, by Bernarda Bryson, ca. 1934-35

    Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and led hundreds of fugitives to freedom, used her knowledge and skills as a scout to assist Union troops during the Civil War. This book illustration from the 1930s represents Tubman disguised as a man, engaged in the Underground Railroad. Risking her own freedom, Tubman returned South many times on her missions.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • HR 240, Legal Tender Act, February 25, 1862

    Civil War spending caused a shortage of coins—the only legal tender at that time. With the Legal Tender Act of 1862 Congress revolutionized the U.S. monetary system by making paper notes legal tender and creating a national currency for the first time.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, Circular No. 9, regarding Freedmen's Right to Vote, May 1, 1867

    Congress passed the First and Second Reconstruction Acts in March 1867. Although the Constitution did not grant suffrage to African American men until ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 enfranchised black males at the state level. Congress charged the Freedmen’s Bureau with supervising elections in the Southern states, including voter registration.

    Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, National Archives and Records Administration

    Such measures will be taken as will inform all Freedmen entitled to be registered….that, as they will not be allowed to suffer from the honest exercise of the right of suffrage, they should disregard all threats or undue influence tending to prevent or restrain the same.

  • “CCC: A Young Man's Opportunity for Work Play Study & Health,” by Illinois WPA Art Project, Chicago, ca. 1935

    The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recruited men aged 17 to 28. Based in camps around the country, the men planted trees, did fire abatement, improved roads and trails, drained swamps and restocked rivers. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), another New Deal agency, produced this poster to publicize the CCC.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Letter from Oliver V. Borden of Auburn, Nebraska to REA of Syracuse, Nebraska, March 8, 1940

    The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) office in Nebraska forwarded to Senator George W. Norris this copy of a letter from a grateful farmer. The farmer offers Senator Norris “a thousand thanks” for promoting electricity “where it was so much needed” and reports that he now has a washing machine, radio, power tools and electric barn lights.

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

  • “The Tennessee Valley,” inside TVA pamphlet The Development of the Tennessee Valley, n.d.

    The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) constructed new dams and hydroelectric plants to control river flooding and supply power. TVA projects provided jobs and training, generated electricity, and promoted commerce. The agency built new housing, schools and park facilities. These projects, however, forced the relocation of some 15,000 families living within the reservoir areas.

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

  • Photograph of homesteader Daniel Freeman

    Daniel Freeman, a Union Army scout, was possibly the first of 418 people to file a homestead claim on January 1, 1863. About to leave the Nebraska Territory, he met a local land office clerk at a New Year’s Eve party and persuaded him to open the office shortly after midnight. Freeman claimed 160 acres in Beatrice, Nebraska.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Senate Roll Call for the attempted override of President Buchanan's veto of S. 416, June 23, 1860

    The 36th Congress (1859–1861) tried to pass the Homestead Act over President James Buchanan’s veto. To override a presidential veto, the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress. The Senate could not garner enough support for an override.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Group portrait of women activists supporting passage of the Sheppard-Towner bill, ca. 1920-1921

    Front, from left: Mary Stewart, Lenna Yost, Maud Wood Park, Jeannette Rankin, Florence Kelley, Lida Hafford. Rear, from left: Dorothy Kirchwey Brown, Adah Bush, Betsy Edwards, Mrs. Raymond [Laura Puffer] Morgan, Mrs. Arthur [Florence V.] Watkins, Mrs. Milton P. [Katherine Chapin] Higgins, Amy Maher.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Map of National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, 1958

    This 1958 map of interstate highways shows improvements in rural segments to be completed over the next quarter-century. The 1956 Federal Highway Act converted many two-lane state roads into well-paved, four-lane superhighways, speeding travel between major population centers. The routes were meant for emergency evacuation and military transport as well as for commerce and commuting.

    AAA, used by permission; Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

  • Circular No. 7, A Report on Amputations at the Hip-Joint in Military Surgery, War Department, Surgeon General's Office, Washington, D.C., July 1, 1867

    In 1862 Surgeon General William Hammond proposed a medical history of the war to serve as a comprehensive reference work. He founded the ArmyMedicalMuseum (now the National Museum of Health and Medicine) to gather case histories, statistics, and specimens and to prepare illustrations. This volume was a preparatory study for the congressionally funded publication.

    National Museum of Health and Medicine

    Greenbacks (United States notes) issued March 10, 1862

    Greenbacks—named for their distinctive color—were the first national currency of the United States. The notes, though not redeemable for gold or silver, were lawful money backed by the credit of the federal government. The front of the five-dollar note depicted the Capitol’s Statue of Freedom and Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury.

    Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Behring Center

  • Wood engraving, "The First Vote,” by Alfred Waud, Harper's Weekly, November 16, 1867

    African American men voted for the first time in significant strength in 1867. Dominated by the “Radical Republicans,” a group known for supporting post-war civil rights policies, Congress put the former Confederate states under military authority until the states established new constitutions and applied for readmission to the Union. The Freedmen’s Bureau ensured that black voters could elect delegates to state constitutional conventions.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • “Mrs. Wiegel uses electric vacuum cleaner,” by Arthur Rothstein, Office of War Information, June 1942

    With rural electrification, electric lights replaced kerosene lamps, farmers could utilize power tools and domestic appliances such as vacuum cleaners and refrigerators eased household chores.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Tennessee Valley Authority, TVA, 1934

    To house workers for the Norris Dam, named after Senator George W. Norris, the TVA built a new town, also named Norris. A permanent, planned community, Norris was a “garden city,” integrating green spaces and small houses supplied with low-cost electricity. Norris remained a government town until 1948, when it became privately owned and then an incorporated municipality.

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

  • Homesteading Certificate of eligibility for Daniel Freeman, January 20, 1868 Homesteading Certificate of eligibility for Daniel Freeman, January 20, 1868

    After five years of homesteading, Daniel Freeman filed for a title deed to his 160 acres in Beatrice, Nebraska. He submitted to the local land office proof of his residency and agricultural improvements and paid his fee. The local office sent the documents and this certificate to the General Land Office in Washington, D.C.

    Records of the Department of the Interior, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Senate Roll Call on the Homestead Act, May 6, 1862

    By May 1862, senators and representatives from 11 Southern states no longer attended the 37th Congress (1861–1863). The Homestead Act easily passed both houses, supported in the Senate by most Republicans and by its leading proponent, Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a Southern Democrat who had remained loyal to the Union.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

    Flyer, 'Write to Your Representatives to support H.R. 10925," 1920

    A coalition of women’s organizations, health associations, and other civic groups published this flyer in support of the Sheppard-Towner bill (H.R. 10925), which was introduced during the 66th Congress (1919-1921). They highlighted the severity of statistics on maternal and infant mortality: 23,000 mothers died annually from childbirth, and infant deaths numbered 250,000.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    How long are YOU going to let mothers and babies die?

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

  • Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles

    Major General Daniel E. Sickles was among those wounded at Gettysburg. He served as a New York representative in Congress both before and after the Civil War.

    National Museum of Health and Medicine

  • Marriage Certificate of John and Emily Pointer, Kentucky, October 20, 1866

    Congress recognized African Americans as citizens by overriding President Andrew Johnson’s veto to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Freedmen’s Bureau subsequently issued hundreds of marriage certificates to couples denied the right to marry while enslaved. John and Emily Pointer had lived together since 1844 and had eight children before their legal marriage in 1866.

    Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives and Records Administration

     

    This is to Certify that John Pointer and Emily Pointer…acknowledged that they have been living together as man and wife since the 28th day of May One thousand eight hundred and Forty Four, and…are therefore declared to be legally married.

  • Drillers at Fort Loudon Dam, by Jack Delano for the United States Office of War Information, ca. August 1942

    The Fort Loudon Dam is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s northernmost dam and hydroelectric plant on the Tennessee River. Built between 1940 and 1944, it was the last TVA dam completed. Like other public projects established by Congress in the 1930s, its construction employed thousands and gave many workers new skills.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Letter from Mary McLeod Bethune to Representative James S. Parker, January 28, 1926

    In 1926 Congress considered whether to renew the Sheppard-Towner Act. Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Association of Colored Women, wrote to the Chairman of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, a panel with jurisdiction over the bill, voicing her organization’s support for a five-year extension. Congress renewed funding until 1929 but then let the program lapse.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    Our organization represents a membership of over 100,000 women… We have been authorized to support the proposal that the time of the Shephard-Towner [sic] act be extended…

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

  • "Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg…,” by Alfred R. Waud, Harper's Weekly, June 30,1866

    A chaplain of the Freedmen’s Bureau married this solider and his bride in Vicksburg, Mississippi, soon after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Labor contract between Abraham Bledsoe and Henry Bledsoe (freedman), commencing January 19, 1866 (Maysville, Kentucky)

    Instead of granting newly freed African Americans their own plots of land, the Freedmen’s Bureau instructed them to enter into written labor contracts with planters—often their former owners. This contract between Kentucky employer Abraham Bledsoe and his former slave Henry Bledsoe sets conditions to be met by both parties and includes penalties for failure to comply.

    Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives and Records Administration

  • National Savings Bank, Vol. I, No. 1, Washington, D.C., January 1, 1868 (publication of the Freedman's Savings and Trust)

    Congress chartered the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (the Freedman’s Bank) in March 1865 to help African Americans build economic strength through savings and investment. The bank worked well for several years and attracted some 70,000 depositors in 16 states and Washington, D.C.––but mismanagement and the economic panic of 1873 led to its failure.

    Click here to view an excerpt.

    It is each man’s duty to earn all he can honestly; to use it for the support of his family and for sending his children to school. All after that he should put by in some safe place where he will get interest on it.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

    Pass books from the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company for Ann Blue and Harrison Blue, Lexington, Kentucky, 1873

    Ann Blue and Harrison Blue were among the tens of thousands of African Americans who put their money and faith in the Freedman’s Savings and Trust. The bank helped many freed African Americans establish a financial foothold, but when it failed in 1874 due in part to fraud, it left many depositors destitute and disillusioned.

    Records of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Freedman's Savings Bank, ca. 1890, James M. Goode Collection

    The Freedman’s Savings Bank established its headquarters in Washington, D.C., at Pennsylvania Avenue and Madison Place, today the site of the Treasury Department Annex.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Centenarian Frances Perry holds Medicare card on the first day of the program’s operation, Dallas, Texas, 1966

    One-hundred-year-old Frances Perry of Dallas, Texas, was one of millions of Americans aged 65 or older who received health insurance through an act of Congress when Medicare went into effect on July 1, 1966. Nearly half of seniors previously lacked medical insurance or had inadequate coverage.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • The Social Security Amendments of 1965 (The Medicare Act), July 30, 1965

    Several attempts to create a federal health insurance program failed in Congress before the Medicare Act passed in 1965. Instrumental in its passage was Representative Wilbur Mills of Arkansas, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Despite his own initial reservations, Mills crafted and championed the final bill.

    General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Map of New Jersey and Pennsylvania Exhibiting the Post Offices, Post Roads, Canals, Rail Roads, &c., by David H. Burr, 1839

    Technological advances in the nineteenth century helped build a transportation network vital to the nation’s growth and unity. Canals traversed unnavigable portions of rivers and coastal waterways while steam engines powered boats and trains.

    Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

  • Petition from the Prairie Club of Chicago in support of establishing a National Park Service, February 16, 1916

    The Prairie Club of Chicago was one of many conservation groups that lobbied Congress in the early twentieth century in favor of a federal service to oversee the growing number of national parks. They believed that consolidating the management of the parks would lead to better environmental protection and greater public accessibility.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Petition for Post Roads, January 8, 1844

    In 1844 citizens of Illinois petitioned Congress for a new post road that would reduce time for delivery of mail from New York or Boston to Springfield by as much as five days. Mail would be transported on the National Road to Lafayette, Indiana, and from there on a new post road to Springfield. One petitioner was Abraham Lincoln, then a lawyer in Springfield.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • H.R. 15522, An Act to establish a National Park Service, engrossed August 5, 1916

    To bring all national parks under unified federal management, Representative William Kent of California and Senator Reed Smoot of Utah introduced corresponding bills in Congress. The legislation, enacted in August 1916, created a National Park Service under the Department of the Interior to regulate the use of national parks and preserve them for later generations.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • National Park System map, 2013

    The National Park Service operates more than 400 scenic parks, monuments, and historic sites throughout the United States and its territories, ensuring that the country’s natural beauty and historic heritage can be enjoyed today and preserved for tomorrow.

    National Park Service

  • William Kent, photograph by Harris and Ewing, n.d.

    Representative William Kent of California served in Congress from 1911 to 1917. In addition to sponsoring the National Park Service Act, he personally donated a redwood grove to create Muir Woods National Monument near San Francisco.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Reed Smoot, photograph, n.d.

    Senator Reed Smoot of Utah, best known as chairman of the Finance Committee and author of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff, also had a strong interest in the western environment. He was the chief Senate sponsor of the National Park Service Act.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

    Every year there are more visitors to our parks, . . . and I see in the future success for the accomplishment of all that Congress had in view in creating the National Parks Service.

    Senator Reed Smoot of Utah, National Parks Conference, January 2, 1917

    S. 2770, Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972

    The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, introduced by Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, reorganized and expanded earlier legislation regulating surface-water quality. It required federal permits for release of pollutants into the nation’s waters. Congress had to balance the financial costs to businesses and farmers with the health and environmental costs of pollution.

    "The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the natural chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters."

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Power to Win: Ten Years of TVA, poster, 1945

    Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a federal corporation to control floods, improve river navigation, provide rural electricity through hydroelectric dams, and foster economic development in the South. During World War II, TVA construction projects employed 28,000 people, and its factories produced aluminum and munitions essential to the war effort.

    Records of the War Production Board, National Archives and Records Administration

  • The Gates, Pedro Miguel Lock, lithograph by Joseph Pennell, 1912

    The Pedro Miguel lock was one of three constructed for the Panama Canal so that ships could navigate the change in levels between the oceans. Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio, who favored Panama, persuasively argued that a Nicaraguan canal would be longer, with more locks, and that engineers preferred a Panama route.

    Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

    President Nixon’s veto message for S. 2770, October 17, 1972 Senate Roll Call on the Veto of S. 2770, October 17, 1972

    Though President Richard Nixon supported environmental protections, he judged the $24 billion act too costly and vetoed the bill. Having labored for years on the legislation, and convinced of its value, bipartisan majorities in both houses voted to override the veto.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Senator George W. Norris at Norris Dam, 1942

    Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska, pictured at the Tennessee dam named in his honor, played a leading role in creating the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration.

    Nebraska State Historical Society, RG3298.PH37-5

  • Nicaragua Mount Momotombo 10 centavos postage stamp, ca. 1900

    Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who lobbied for a Panamanian canal, sent every senator a Nicaraguan postage stamp depicting a volcano. It was an effective ploy: Panama had no volcanoes.

    National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution

  • “One of the small homes at Norris, Tenn.,” Tennessee Valley Authority, 1934

    To house workers and families displaced by flooding for reservoirs, the TVA built new housing. Norris was a planned community to house workers for the Norris Dam.

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

  • “Spanish laborers at work in Culebra Cut,” stereograph, August 1914

    Excavations for the Panama Canal began in 1879 under an agreement between France and Colombia. After tropical diseases ravaged the Panamanian and Jamaican workforce, France withdrew and offered the project––including surveys, equipment, buildings, and a railroad—to the U.S. for a relatively low price. The offer influenced Congress to select Panama as the canal site.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Electric phosphate-smelting furnace in a TVA chemical plant, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, photograph by Alfred T. Palmer, 1942

    TVA plants produced chemicals such as phosphorus, used in the manufacture of fertilizer and munitions. Though criticized for displacing communities, the TVA benefitted the economy and national defense.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Senate resolution ratifying the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, February 23, 1904

    In 1904 the Senate approved for ratification a treaty with the new Republic of Panama giving the United States control of the Canal Zone in perpetuity. Secretary of State John Hay negotiated the treaty with Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer representing Panama. In 1978 the Senate approved for ratification two treaties transferring the canal to Panama in 1999.

    General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives and Records Administration

  • Marcus A. Hanna, 1903

    Senator Marcus Aurelius (Mark) Hanna of Ohio was so influential in the decision to construct the canal in Panama that other senators called it the “Hannama Canal.”

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress