Passion and Deadlock, 1858 - 1858
Fighting broke out over slavery—on the House floor. The violent slavery disputes among settlers in “Bloody Kansas” provoked passions in Congress. During a late-night House session in 1858, South Carolina’s Laurence Keitt called Pennsylvania’s Galusha Grow a “black Republican puppy.” Grow responded by knocking down Keitt. Suddenly, dozens of members were pushing, punching, and wrestling on the House floor.
The Speaker and the Sergeant at Arms, wielding the clublike Mace, tried to restore order. They failed. The brawl finally ended when one member dramatically snatched his opponent’s wig. Peals of laughter calmed tempers; everyone shook hands and resumed debate. But the incident seemed an ominous sign of troubled times. Representative Alexander Stephens of Georgia concluded, “The Union cannot or will not last long.”
Thaddeus Stevens Making a Difference - 1868
Can one person make a difference? Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania lived and died a crusader for equality. For seven years (1861–1868), his determined opposition to slavery helped shape the character of the House. Stevens later was buried in an integrated cemetery with the epitaph "Equality of Man before his Creator."
As Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and a member of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Stevens used his skill as a wily parliamentarian and fearless debater to press for military victory. After the war, he opposed President Andrew Johnson's lenient policies toward the defeated Confederacy. Stevens’ ill health prevented him from playing an active role in Johnson’s 1868 Senate trial. He died just weeks after it ended.
"... [E]very man, no matter what his race or color; every earthly being who has an immortal soul, has an equal right to justice, honesty, and fair play with every other man; and the law should secure him those rights."
— Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, 1867
The Second American Revolution - 1877
“All men are created equal,” proclaimed the Declaration of Independence. Nearly a century later, the Fifteenth Amendment redeemed that promise. The right to vote, it stated, could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Educated African-Americans provided leadership for freed slaves. In 1870, Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina became the first black member to serve in the House. During Reconstruction, 14 African-Americans held House seats. Eight had been born into slavery, six born free.
When federal troops left the South in 1877, Reconstruction ended. So did the era of opportunity. African-Americans gradually disappeared from the House. As Southern states passed “Jim Crow” laws enforcing segregation in the 1890s, African-Americans were barred from the polls and from political office.
The End of an Era 1867-1872 - 1873
Priorities changed quickly after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. The generation that had fought against slavery now turned its attention to the nation’s economic growth. Deals involving the transcontinental railroad, however, illustrated the potential for corruption as the nation rapidly grew.
The Union Pacific Railroad had created the fraudulent Crédit Mobilier Company to build its stretch of the cross-country line at inflated cost. To ensure political support for the venture, Representative Oakes Ames, an agent for Crédit Mobilier, gave shares in the company to members of Congress. Ames later reported back to the company that he had distributed this stock “where it will produce most good to us.” Press reports exposed the scandal in 1872, ruining several political careers.