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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.
Unprecedented growth in the 1850s strained the fragile agreements that had kept the nation united, but had also kept it part slave, part free. The addition of each new state to the Union rattled the delicate political balance carved out by compromises in Congress. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed residents of each of these new territories, rather than Congress, to decide whether to permit slavery. While intending to keep the nation together, this act inflamed sectional tensions, producing open warfare between pro- and antislavery forces in Kansas, and led directly to the Civil War.
Defending the Union
Sectional divisions blocked House business before the Civil War. When war came, the House concentrated on winning.
With peace, the House turned to issues of recovery. The House remained deadlocked even as conflict loomed. But Southern congressmen soon defected to the Confederacy, freeing Republican representatives to act. They abolished slavery in territory held by Union troops and passed long-stalled bills to build railroads and open land to homesteaders. After the war, Republicans demanded that the House punish rebels more harshly than Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson recommended. Ultimately, their agenda faltered under its own weight. Republicans failed to remove President Johnson through impeachment. Moreover, the effective resistance of former Confederates frustrated their vision of reshaping the South, socially and economically.
Partisan Politics and the Radical Republicans
In the deeply divided house, balances between parties and regions proved critical. No one bloc dominated, but antislavery Republicans were gaining support. The House remained deadlocked. When the South seceded, however, the logjam broke and Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens assumed unchecked power. After the ambitious postwar Reconstruction failed, a new political era arose in which fresh debates about national economic development replaced old battles about sectionalism and slavery.
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.”
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
“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.
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.