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.
What did the newly written Constitution say about freedom of speech? Freedom of religion? Nothing. The drafters of the Constitution were split over whether to list individual rights. Most felt that these were matters for state or local governments. During the first congressional election campaign, however, voters changed the minds of many lawmakers—including Virginia’s James Madison, a primary framer of the Constitution.
Congressman Madison agreed that the Constitution should protect individual rights. But he and others worried that a new round of amendments could get out of hand, reshaping the government before it had a chance to prove itself. Madison carefully boiled down for the House more than 200 proposed amendments into 19 changes listing basic rights. Congress eventually passed 12. The states ratified 10 of these amendments—today’s Bill of Rights.
"[T]he first Congress ... ought to prepare and recommend to the States for ratification, the most satisfactory provisions for all essential rights, particularly the rights of Conscience in the fullest latitude, the freedom of the press, trials by jury, security against general warrants &c."
— Representative James Madison of Virginia, 1789
Good government depends on good information. To get an accurate understanding of issues, congressional committees investigate. One goal of investigations is to uncover whether government agencies are performing effectively or whether new laws are needed.
The first congressional investigation, in 1792, was in response to news that Shawnee and Miami Indians had destroyed General Arthur St. Clair's army. The House formed a committee of inquiry, which asked for War Department papers. President Washington agreed—cautiously. The inquiry that followed blamed the War and Treasury departments for the defeat. Although the president's supporters prevented the House report from becoming public, the process firmly established the power of Congress to investigate.
"It was due to justice, to truth, and to the national honor, to take effectual measures to investigate the business thoroughly."
— Representative Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, 1792
In a democracy, disagreement doesn’t mean disloyalty. But political parties were new in the United States, and it took time to accept the idea that opposition can strengthen a democratic society. As Congress divided into opposing political parties (Federalists, often viewed as aristocratic, versus the sometimes rambunctious Jeffersonian Republicans), debates frequently led to strong words—and, on rare occasions, more.
During a 1798 debate, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a Jeffersonian Republican, responded to taunts about his military record by spitting tobacco juice in the face of Roger Griswold, a Connecticut Federalist. Outraged that the House didn’t punish “the spitting Lyon,” Griswold took matters into his own hands. He attacked Lyon with a cane. Lyon then grabbed a pair of fire tongs. The two ended up wrestling on the floor of the House.
The Constitution says that the House of Representatives "shall chuse their Speaker." But it doesn’t say what a Speaker does. The office evolved along with the House. At first, Speakers were largely neutral, presiding over debates and maintaining order. Then came Henry Clay of Kentucky.
Clay became Speaker in 1811, on his first day in the House. Not content simply to oversee the proceedings, he was determined to lead. Clay headed the "War Hawks" faction, which championed American interests against British activity on the seas and Western frontier. He assigned his supporters to committees involved in matters of war and peace with Britain and backed the War of 1812. Clay's forceful personality stamped the House with a partisan spirit and transformed the Speaker into its political leader.
"Come up, and you shall see how I will throw the reins over their necks."
— Speaker Henry Clay