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.
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.
A New City for a New Nation
Among the government’s first tasks was choosing a home. Congress had met in seven different cities since 1774. In 1790, it passed the Residence Act, authorizing a new, 10-mile-square, federally controlled seat of government on the Potomac River.Andrew Ellicott—with the African-American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker and others—surveyed this federal territory.
President George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant (he preferred Peter), a French-American artist and engineer, to plan the city. L’Enfant created a civic masterpiece of wide diagonal avenues, public plazas, and a great Mall. For the Capitol, he chose Jenkins Hill, calling it “a pedestal waiting for a monument.” The Capitol’s first two sections were built during this period.
Pierre L’Enfant laid out the streets of Washington, D.C., but failed to produce designs for public buildings as requested. To fill this gap, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson proposed an architectural competition for the new Capitol in 1792. The contest offered entrants a city lot—and a cash prize of $500. It drew about thirteen applicants, including soldiers, teachers, judges, and craftsmen originally from Ireland, France, England, Germany, and America.
The competition entries disappointed President Washington. The designs lacked the dignity and stateliness he had expected. No prizes were awarded until, early in 1793, Dr. William Thornton presented a plan that President Washington praised for its “grandeur, simplicity, and beauty.” Thornton had envisioned a Capitol with the classical elegance, sophistication, and grand scale that Washington wanted.
Many of the nation’s founders studied ancient Rome. Classically educated, they were well versed in Roman law, government, history, and literature. They prized classical architecture for its nobility, timelessness, and beauty, and also for its associations with a great, self-governing civilization.
Thomas Jefferson enthusiastically promoted classical architecture for the new city’s public buildings. Through these structures, he hoped that Americans would spread this style throughout the country. Jefferson already had designed a reproduction of a Roman temple for the Virginia state legislature in Richmond, the first such building since antiquity.
The buildings being planned for the new seat of government in Washington offered an even greater potential for architectural education.
Ceremonies to commemorate the construction of a great public building can be traced to the ancient world and were particularly important to builders in the Middle Ages. The laying of a cornerstone is a symbolic act that celebrates humanity’s need to build and be remembered. On September 18, 1793, President George Washington laid the Capitol’s cornerstone in a ceremony attended by representatives of Masonic lodges from Maryland and Virginia, an artillery company, the city commissioners, and local residents.
Workmen began digging the Capitol’s foundations in August 1793, and President Washington laid the cornerstone in a Masonic ceremony on September 18. After the speeches, the crowd feasted on a 500-pound barbecued ox.
Labor and money shortages hampered the pace of construction. Funds came mostly from selling city lots, and sales proved sluggish. Workmen were scarce in the sparsely populated area. Stone carvers were recruited from Scotland, joining a diverse workforce of immigrant and native-born craftsmen. Slaves provided additional labor, earning $5 a month—for their owners.
By American standards, the Capitol was an immense building. It overwhelmed city resources, forcing commissioners to seek loans from Dutch banks and the Maryland legislature. In 1796, the commissioners decided to forgo two-thirds of the building and finish only the north wing for the time being. Opened in 1800, the building was made available to the Washington community when not in use by Congress. Religious services and other civic events were regularly held there.
Congress allocated $50,000 in 1803 to build the Capitol’s south wing. President Thomas Jefferson hired the architect-engineer B. Henry Latrobe, who reconfigured the wing’s interior while preserving the exterior design.
Latrobe built the south wing with fireproof masonry vaults. He also used these to rebuild about half of the north wing, which already suffered from rotting timbers and falling plaster. Latrobe constructed a new Senate Chamber and created a new Supreme Court Chamber.
One enduring Jefferson and Latrobe legacy is the use of symbolic sculpture in the Capitol. Sculptors were recruited from Italy. An eagle and statue of Liberty were made for the House Chamber. Giovanni Andrei and Giuseppe Franzoni produced for the Senate figures representing Arts, Commerce, Agriculture, Science, Military Force, and Civil Government.
America’s second war with Great Britain flared in 1812. U.S. forces invaded Upper Canada the following year, burning the governor’s house and legislative hall in York (now Toronto). Britain retaliated, sailing troops up the Patuxent River to destroy Washington’s public buildings.
After a brief battle, the British entered the nearly deserted city on the evening of August 24, 1814. They attacked the Capitol, armed with gunpowder and torches. The north wing, occupied by the Senate, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress, took the heaviest damage. The south wing’s first-floor rooms survived, but the House Chamber was destroyed. Many of Latrobe’s great neoclassical designs—built under Jefferson’s supervision—were lost. The nation had suffered a humiliating blow to its honor.