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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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During its first quarter century, the new United States government had to find its way in the world while attending to the nation’s business. Leaders met with Indian nations and faced often-hostile relations with European powers while coping with conflicts between emerging political parties and working out relationships among the three new branches of government.

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Taking Shape

As the newly established Senate defined its constitutional role, it continually tested its authority against that of the president and House of Representatives, seeking the proper balance.Senators irritated President George Washington by rejecting several of his nominations and by refusing to consent immediately to Indian treaties he supported. Though many had expected the Senate simply to refine the work of the House, it took the lead in many areas, including legislation dealing with courts, foreign affairs, and banking.

A Place for Debate and Decision

In this period, the Senate operated with a membership ranging from 22 to 36. Unlike the much larger House of Representatives, where opportunities for debate were necessarily limited, the Senate developed a tradition of leisurely and extended debate.

For Congress’s first 125 years, state legislatures elected senators and often sent them instructions on how to vote. Most senators, however, preferred to make up their own minds. They met in secret before 1795, after which popular pressure forced them to admit the public. By the time the War of 1812 ended, the Senate stood ready to meet the challenges of an uncertain new era.

Defining the Senate's Role  - 1789

How would senators represent the citizens of their states? Under the Constitution, state legislatures (not voters) chose senators, who served longer terms than House members. The Senate gave each state an equal voice in Congress—regardless of its population. Critics of this system warned that the Senate might be too “aristocratic.” Would senators be accountable? they asked. Would they fairly reflect public opinion?

The opposite point of view was given by James Madison, one of the principal framers of the Constitution. He feared that the larger, popularly elected House might too easily “yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions.” Madison argued that senators, serving longer terms and chosen by state legislatures, would be more shielded from popular whims and better able to counter such political frenzy until “reason, justice, and truth” again prevailed.

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Setting Up Shop  - 1789

The Senate began work on April 6, 1789, when a majority of senators arrived, establishing a quorum, or the minimum number required to conduct business. Since they met behind closed doors, the senators needed a doorkeeper to guard their privacy. They chose James Mathers for this job on April 7 (later expanding his position to Doorkeeper and Sergeant at Arms).

The next day, Samuel Otis became Secretary of the Senate, responsible for keeping a journal, buying supplies, managing payrolls, and paying bills. Within three weeks, senators also elected their first chaplain: Samuel Provoost, the Episcopal bishop of New York. Choosing these officers laid the foundation for today’s extensive Senate organization.

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Jay's Treaty: Sharing Power 1794-1795  - 1795

Winning independence from Britain did not end disputes between the two nations. Issues of trade and territory remained. To resolve these, President Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London in 1794. Even before Jay returned to America, angry rumors circulated speculating that the treaty he negotiated favored the British at the expense of American interests.

Following two months of bitter debate in 1795, the Senate approved Jay's Treaty with barely the required two-thirds majority. When a senator leaked the still-secret agreement to the press, angry mobs accused senators of signing a "death warrant to America’s liberties." Those who had voted against the treaty became heroes. This split helped define America’s first political parties—the Federalists, who approved the treaty, and the Jeffersonian Republicans. When the House made a bid to review the treaty, President Washington refused its request for documents, thereby reaffirming the Senate's exclusive role in approving treaties.

"A death warrant to America’s liberties ..."
—Cry of protesters against Jay’s Treaty, Summer 1795

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Behind Closed Doors 1789–1795  - 1795

Why meet in closed session? The Constitution does not require Congress to meet in public. The House of Representatives, elected directly by voters, immediately opened its doors to the public and press. Senators, originally chosen by state legislators, decided to meet in private, believing they could work more efficiently without public scrutiny and interference.

The earliest Senate Chambers, in New York City and Philadelphia, did not have visitors’ galleries. The Senate decided to build a viewing area in 1794 after many state legislatures and newspapers demanded more openness. Beginning in 1795, the Senate debated legislative business (lawmaking) in open session but continued to discuss executive business (treaties and nominations) in closed sessions until 1929. Today, both houses of Congress conduct all debates in public sessions, except when discussing information that could risk national security.

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Additional information for The Senate - 1789-1815

    Journal of the First Session of the Senate, 1789

    Since its first session, the Senate has kept a day-to-day summary of its activities in accordance with the Constitution. The journals, however, do not record debate in the Senate Chamber. These entries show 19 rules adopted on April 16, 1789, for conducting business in the Senate Chamber.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

  • Thomas Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practices, 1801

    When Jefferson served as Vice President and Presiding Officer of the Senate, he felt the need for more guidance in ruling on procedural matters. He wrote this manual to guide senators and future vice presidents.

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

    Corn Capital, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1809

    Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed six sandstone columns for the vestibule of the original Senate Chamber. He depicted stalks, husks, cobs, and kernels of corn to create a unique column style—“corn order.” Installed in 1809, the columns are among the few architectural features that survived Britain’s 1814 burning of the Capitol.

    First image: Collection of the U.S. Senate

    Second image: Architect of the Capitol

  • Portrait of Oliver Ellsworth and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth, oil on canvas by Ralph Earl, 1792.

    Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

    Gift of the Ellsworth Heirs. Acc#1903.7

  • William Maclay, by Max Rosenthal

    William Maclay, by Max Rosenthal

    The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), Society Portrait Collection

  • Senate Chamber, Congress Hall, Philadelphia (photograph of modern re-creation)

    This chamber served the Senate throughout the 1790s. It welcomed visitors after 1794, when the Senate permanently opened its proceedings to the public.

    Independence National Historical Park