A Fire Bell in the Night, 1819-1820 - 1819
When Missouri petitioned to be admitted as a slave state in 1819, it ignited a dispute that Thomas Jefferson compared to "a fire bell in the night." But this was one fire Congress could not put out completely.
Representative James Tallmadge of New York proposed an amendment to Missouri's statehood bill gradually ending slavery there. The Senate defeated the bill because of Tallmadge's amendment. The next year, Senator Jesse Thomas of Illinois devised a compromise: simultaneously admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, while banning slavery in most of the Louisiana Territory. Speaker Henry Clay used his popularity and parliamentary skill to win House agreement. The solution ended the immediate crisis—but only postponed a final showdown.
If you persist, the Union will be dissolved. You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish."
—Representative Thomas W. Cobb of Georgia, 1819
The House Elects a President, 1825 - 1825
If no candidate wins a majority in the electoral college, the Constitution specifies that the House of Representatives selects a president from among the top three candidates.
In 1825, no candidate won a majority. Senator Andrew Jackson of Tennessee received the most votes, followed by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts and Treasury Secretary William Crawford of Georgia. House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky, who finished last, threw his support behind Adams. The House followed Clay's lead. But when the victorious Adams named Clay as Secretary of State (a traditional stepping-stone to the White House), Jackson supporters accused the two of a "corrupt bargain." Four years later, that slogan helped Jackson defeat Adams—with a clear majority.
Taking a Stand, 1848 - 1848
Adding controversial amendments to important bills is one tactic used by supporters of a bill to make other lawmakers confront and vote on difficult issues. Representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania used this technique in a classic example of parliamentary acrobatics. In 1846, Wilmot successfully added to an appropriations bill (one that authorizes necessary government expenditures) an amendment prohibiting slavery in all territory taken during the Mexican War. The Senate, where the South was stronger, let the bill die. The antislavery House majority continued adding Wilmot’s proviso to other important bills, constantly forcing legislators to face the volatile question of expanding slavery.