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.
With an equal number of senators representing slave and free states, the Senate became the setting for explosive issues that increasingly divided the industrialized North, the agricultural South, and the rapidly expanding West.
Emerging from the shadow of the House of Representatives, the Senate matured into a creative and active lawmaking body. By 1850, it had grown to 62 members. Yet, unlike the far larger, more crowded House Chamber, the Senate still offered a relatively intimate setting that encouraged extended debate.
A Forum for Orators
The Senate's tradition of letting senators debate without time limits, and its relatively small size, encouraged great speakers. The even split between North and South inspired the orators. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts delivered two of the most significant speeches in American political history on the Senate floor: his “Second Reply to Hayne” (1830) and the “Seventh of March 1850” address.
Passionate words reflected senators' determination to exercise their power. Bitter struggles with President Andrew Jackson and his successors over the economy tested and reinforced the Senate's power, allowing the chamber to evolve into its modern role as a leading forum for setting national policies.
Who has more power, the Federal Government or the States? This basic question took on vast importance as arguments over slavery divided the nation. It also inspired one of the Senate's most famous debates.
Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina presented the Southern viewpoint. He argued that states could ignore Federal laws that violated constitutional rights. “Liberty first, and Union afterwards,” Hayne proclaimed. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts responded with a ringing defense of the Federal Government's power to establish policies benefiting all Americans. He concluded with the now immortal words, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" Webster's speech propelled him to the top rank of American statesmen and strengthened relations between the North and West—at the South's expense.
"Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"
— Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, January 27, 1830
The Senate gained new prominence in the 1830s as a result of its battle with President Andrew Jackson. Jackson's veto of an act to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States angered many members of Congress. When the President refused to comply with a Senate request for important documents related to bank operations, the Senate censured, or formally rebuked, him for assuming powers that he did not have under the Constitution. Jackson angrily rebuffed the Senate and dismissed its censure. Three years later, when Jackson's Democratic Party regained control of the Senate, the new majority voted to strike, or delete, the censure from the Senate Journal. Behind this debate lay a fierce struggle for power between Congress and the President over which branch would take the lead in shaping national policy.
In Congress, one person may have reasons to keep information private, while another has equally compelling reasons to make it public. In 1844, as the volatile issue of slavery inflamed emotions, Senator Benjamin Tappan of Ohio gave a secret treaty to a journalist. He wanted to publicize sections of the treaty that would allow slavery in Texas.
The Senate censured Tappan and threatened to expel future members who "leaked," or revealed, secrets.
Four years later, someone in the Senate gave the still-secret Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War, to New York Herald reporter John Nugent. Determined to make good on its threat to enforce secrecy, the Senate ordered Nugent imprisoned in the Capitol until he named his source. Nugent refused. A frustrated Senate eventually released the reporter without discovering his source.
Three great Senators dominated what has come to be called the Senate's "Golden Age of Oratory," from the 1830s to the 1850s. The legendary orator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts spoke for industrial New England. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the "Great Compromiser," represented the Western frontier. The Southerner John C. Calhoun of South Carolina defended states' rights and the institution of slavery. Yet all three represented the United States. Alternately feuding and cooperating, this "great triumvirate" helped forge major legislative agreements, culminating with the Compromise of 1850.
The compromise included the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to return escaped slaves to their owners. By supporting it, Webster defied his antislavery constituents in Massachusetts, sacrificing his political career. The Massachusetts Senator believed passionately that he should defend the interests of the whole nation.
"I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American."
—Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, January 27, 1830
"I owe a paramount allegiance to the whole Union—a subordinate one to my own State."
—Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, July 22, 1850