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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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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.

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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.

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

 

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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.

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Old Man Eloquent  - 1815

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

 

 

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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.

 

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Additional information for The House - 1815-1851

  • House Member’s Desk and Chair, ca. 1818-1857

     

    After the British burned the Capitol in 1814, only a roofless shell remained. Once the chambers were rebuilt, the legislators needed somewhere to sit. The House ordered 188 desks and chairs like these for their chamber. Cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine built them in just four months.

    First image: Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives (desk)

    Second image: Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Miller in memory of Nellie Holmead Fowler (chair)

  • The House of Representatives, by Samuel F. B. Morse, completed 1822; probably reworked 1823

    The House met in this grand space from 1807 until 1857. The artist has captured the House Chamber at dusk. The room is now used as National Statuary Hall.

    Oil on canvas, 86 7/8 x 130 5/8 inches
    Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund, 11.14

  • Letter from Amasa Parker to His Wife (pages 2 and 3), 1837

    In the 19th century, few congressional members brought their wives or families to Washington with them. In this letter home, Representative Parker of New York fretted over his wife's poor health and sketched the seating arrangement in the dining room of his boardinghouse.

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

  • John Quincy Adams, daguerreotype by Josiah Johnson Hawes and Albert Sands Southworth, ca. 1850

    12.0 x 9.0 cm (4 3/4 x 3 9/16 in.). Gift of I.N. Phelps Stokes, Edward S. Hawes, Alice Mary Hawes, and Marion August Hawes, 1937 (37.14.34).

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

    Image copyright (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY.

     

     

  • Hon. David Wilmot, engraving, Harper’s Weekly, 1857

    Wilmot was an unexpected champion of antislavery policies. A strong supporter of President James K. Polk’s expansionist program, Wilmot surprised everyone with his amendment to prohibit slavery in all territories acquired in the Mexican War. Polk forced Wilmot to promise never to introduce his “mischievous and foolish amendment” again, but Wilmot had become an antislavery hero.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Abraham Lincoln, daguerreotype attributed to Nicholas H. Shepherd, ca. 1847

    The Mexican War dominated Lincoln’s single term in the House. As a member of the Whig Party, he opposed the war and introduced a resolution calling for proof that the initial fighting had broken out on American soil, not on Mexican or disputed territory. His district’s practice of rotating its member among its three counties prevented Lincoln from serving another term.