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.
Following the War of 1812, a stronger sense of national unity emerged in the United States. As America expanded westward, however, attempts to spread slavery into those new territories seriously divided the nation.
Through a series of compromises between 1820 and 1850 that allowed slavery in some new states and not others, legislators in Congress held the Union together. But these agreements, intended to calm bitter regional divisions, didn’t end the dispute. While they bought time for the nation's new political institutions to mature and strengthen, they allowed slavery to continue for another generation. America's expansion also took a heavy toll on Native Americans, who suffered numerous broken treaties as their land was taken and much of their various cultures destroyed.
In the same period, Congress passed legislation to survey routes for roads and canals, funded improvement of rivers and harbors, and created a banking system to promote the nation's economic self-sufficiency. In Washington, the first Capitol building was completed, and then quickly outgrown, as eight new states joined the Union.
Conflict and Compromise
Free or slave? As America expanded after the War of 1812, new territories began to choose.
In the House, slavery foes resisted spreading the South's "peculiar institution" to new states. Southern representatives feared that admitting more free states would tip the delicate balance against them.
Missouri’s bid to enter the Union as a slave state, carved from the Louisiana Purchase, sparked controversy in 1819 and 1820. Twenty-six years later, a fight flared over a House amendment banning slavery in all land gained from the Mexican War. Immigration to Northern states meant that with each Federal census, the proportion of free-state representatives in the House grew. Defenders of slavery increasingly felt threatened.
A House Divided
Slavery tied the House in knots. As the proportion of slave-state representatives dwindled, Southern members frantically tried to defend their interests. First, they changed House rules to keep slavery off the agenda automatically by banning the discussion of antislavery petitions. Later, as the two political parties continued to split into Northern and Southern factions, Southern candidates for House Speaker disrupted both parties so completely that weeks of voting produced no result. Such deadlocks shifted momentum to the Senate, which remained evenly divided between slave states and free, and thus was better able to negotiate compromises between North and South.
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
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.
John Quincy Adams was President of the United States. After that came the high point of his life: 17 years in the House of Representatives.
Adams thrived on congressional combat. When Southern members imposed a rule that automatically prohibited debate on antislavery petitions, Adams was outraged. To "gag" citizens who petition their government, he thundered, was a "direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the rules of this House, and of the rights of my constituents."
Adams matched words with deeds. For eight years (1836–1844), he gleefully baffled opponents by exploiting every loophole and parliamentary trick to bring up antislavery petitions. His efforts won him wide popularity in the North, encouraging even more antislavery petitions. In 1844, on Adams’s motion, the House rescinded the "gag rule."
"Mr. Adams belongs to no local district, to no political party, but to the Nation and to the people...."
— Diary of Representative Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio
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.