History of Congress and the Capitol
This is the story of one of the world's great experiments in government by the people.
For more than two centuries, a new Congress has convened every two years following elections that determine all the seats in the House and one-third of those in the Senate. While the individuals change, the institution has endured-through civil and world wars, waves of immigration and great migrations, and continuous social and technological change.
The Congress we know today was created after the failure of a government under the Articles of Confederation, which left most powers to the states. In 1787, a convention of specially selected delegates proposed a new constitution that strengthened the national government and established a representative branch composed of a House and Senate.
From the beginning, the two bodies of Congress were meant to be different, yet interdependent. James Madison said they would be "as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on society, will admit." As a result, the House and Senate have different rules, traditions, and cultures. Yet in their shared responsibilities they function as the nation's single lawmaking body.
During its first quarter century, the new United States government had to find its way in the world while attending to the nation’s business. Leaders met with Indian nations and faced often-hostile relations with European powers while coping with conflicts between emerging political parties and working out relationships among the three new branches of government.
The First Congress (1789–1791) laid the foundation built upon by future congresses: It inaugurated the president, created government departments, established a system of courts, passed the Bill of Rights, and enacted laws needed by the new country to raise money and provide for other essential needs. Meeting first in New York City and then in Philadelphia, legislators moved in 1800 to the new Capitol in the District of Columbia.
The founding era concluded with the War of 1812. As the nation fought to confirm its independence from Great Britain, British forces invaded Washington in the summer of 1814 and set fire to its public buildings, including the Capitol. Despite the turbulence and uncertainty of these times, the nation successfully developed a functioning government based on the principles of representation.
The People's Chamber
The founders expected the House of Representatives to take center stage in the new American government. They felt that its status as the only national institution with members elected directly by the people made the House uniquely important - and posed special dangers.
"The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy," warned Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention.
Through much of this early period, the House was indeed the nation's driving political force. It proposed the Bill of Rights, drafted legislation to create government agencies, carried out investigations, and shaped an aggressive policy toward Great Britain.
The House of Representatives was new, yet rested on familiar foundations. The individual states had long experience with popularly elected legislatures. Representatives also looked to Britain's House of Commons, adopting ideas such as a presiding Speaker and basic parliamentary procedures. Its launch went smoothly.
As the newly established Senate defined its constitutional role, it continually tested its authority against that of the president and House of Representatives, seeking the proper balance.
Senators irritated President George Washington by rejecting several of his nominations and by refusing to consent immediately to Indian treaties he supported. Though many had expected the Senate simply to refine the work of the House, it took the lead in many areas, including legislation dealing with courts, foreign affairs, and banking.
A Place for Debate and Decision
In this period, the Senate operated with a membership ranging from 22 to 36. Unlike the much larger House of Representatives, where opportunities for debate were necessarily limited, the Senate developed a tradition of leisurely and extended debate.
For Congress’s first 125 years, state legislatures elected senators and often sent them instructions on how to vote. Most senators, however, preferred to make up their own minds. They met in secret before 1795, after which popular pressure forced them to admit the public. By the time the War of 1812 ended, the Senate stood ready to meet the challenges of an uncertain new era.
A New City for a New Nation
Among the government’s first tasks was choosing a home. Congress had met in seven different cities since 1774. In 1790, it passed the Residence Act, authorizing a new, 10-mile-square, federally controlled seat of government on the Potomac River.
Andrew Ellicott—with the African-American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker and others—surveyed this federal territory.
President George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant (he preferred Peter), a French-American artist and engineer, to plan the city. L’Enfant created a civic masterpiece of wide diagonal avenues, public plazas, and a great Mall. For the Capitol, he chose Jenkins Hill, calling it “a pedestal waiting for a monument.” The Capitol’s first two sections were built during this period.