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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.

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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.

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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.

Getting Organized

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.

Amending the Constitution  - 1789

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

 

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1792 Federal Fact Finders  - 1792

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

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1798 The Rough and Tumble of Debate  - 1798

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.

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1811 Henry Clay: The Speaker as Leader  - 1811

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

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Additional information for The House - 1789-1815

  • Report of Destroyed House Records, 1814

    On August 24, 1814, British troops invaded Washington, D.C., burning the Capitol, the White House, and most federal buildings. The report to the Clerk of the House lists the records destroyed in the fire and why some could not be removed.

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

  • Brick Paver

    Sturdy and inexpensive, brick pavers were used in the offices and corridors in the House wing. Following President Jefferson’s suggestion, some hexagonal floor tiles like this one were imported from France.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • House Chamber, Congress Hall, Philadelphia (photograph of modern re-creation)

    For a decade before moving to Washington in 1800, the House met on the main floor of Congress Hall, the Speaker presiding from the raised platform at the right.

    Independence National Historical Park

  • James Madison, oil on canvas by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1792

    Madison was a legislative giant, despite his slight build and tentative manner. Dismissed as "too much of a book politician" by Representative Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, it was Madison who drafted the Bill of Rights and ushered it through the House. He was a close political adviser to President George Washington and later a key leader of the Jeffersonian Republicans.

    From the collection of Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Accession #0126.1006

  • John Randolph 1773–1833, Virginia

    Randolph was impossible to ignore, appearing on the House floor with riding whip and hunting dogs. Brutal in debate, Randolph championed agrarian interests and limited government. "I am an aristocrat," he proclaimed, "I love liberty, I hate equality." But the country soon passed Randolph by as manufacturing interests grew, and politics became more democratic.

    House Journal, 1789-1791

    The Constitution requires that each chamber compile an official journal, summarizing the record of each legislative day.  The Clerk of the House maintains the House Journal, which chronicles matters considered by the House, votes, and other procedural actions.

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