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.
A Growing Nation and Capitol
As the United States expanded across the continent, laborers in Washington were finishing the Capitol.
Early in this period, the building consisted of just two wings, both badly damaged by British attacks in the War of 1812. Congress returned to Washington soon after the fires died down, debating whether to rebuild—or to pack up and move back to Philadelphia.
Congress chose to rebuild. It began work reconstructing the two wings, later uniting them with the long-delayed center building. At last, in 1829, the Capitol and its landscaping were complete. But within 20 years, the nation had outgrown the building.
Capitol restoration began soon after the fires of 1814 were out. B. Henry Latrobe, who had been Jefferson’s "surveyor of public buildings," was hired to restore the two wings.
The project went beyond simple restoration, however. Changes in Congress prompted changes in the building’s interior. Chief among these were eight new rooms in the north wing for Senate committees. Latrobe also enlarged the House and Senate chambers, modifying their layout to better suit their operations. In plan and decoration, these spaces recalled the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. To ensure that the work was both elegant and economical, one of the sculptors returned to Italy—where labor was cheaper—to supervise the carving of column capitals.
Charles Bulfinch of Boston took over the restoration from Latrobe in 1818. The north and south wings reopened in the fall of 1819. Work on the middle building (connecting the wings) began on August 24, 1818, the fourth anniversary of the British fire. It concluded eight years later.
Bulfinch designed and built the rotunda, or "grand vestibule," which stood 96 feet across and 96 feet high—the proportions of Rome's ancient Pantheon. On the outside, he built a very tall wooden dome, responding to President James Monroe's request for a prominent and visible structure. Bulfinch also landscaped the Capitol's 22-acre garden and built earthen terraces on the west front. When Bulfinch retired in 1829, the Capitol was finished—36 years after George Washington had laid its cornerstone.
The completed Capitol boasted some of America's most splendid interiors, with statues, marble columns, wall-to-wall carpets, and damask draperies. Oil-burning chandeliers (converted to gas in the 1840s) illuminated legislative rooms furnished with mahogany desks and chairs. The Supreme Court Chamber was more dimly lit, creating a somber atmosphere. Among the most popular rooms was the Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson sold Congress his private library in 1815, greatly expanding the size and breadth of the collection lost to fire and thereby laying the foundation for today's Library of Congress.
The Capitol covered about 60,000 square feet, with 70 offices and committee rooms warmed by more than 80 fireplaces and dozens of stoves. A restaurant served oysters, roasted meats, and turtle soup. A spring supplied drinking water, and a rooftop cistern collected rainwater to flush the china basins in congressional privies.
The Capitol is more than a building. It's a showcase for American ideals. B. Henry Latrobe commissioned a figure of Liberty and a magnificent clock for the House Chamber, and Justice, a relief in the Supreme Court. For the Senate, Latrobe designed a gallery supported by statues representing the states—though these were never made.
Charles Bulfinch's rotunda featured sculpture and paintings of European explorers, Indians, and settlers. Luigi Persico sculpted an allegory entitled Genius of America for the pediment over the east portico, and symbolic figures of War and Peace for niches flanking the rotunda entrance. In 1817, Congress commissioned John Trumbull to paint four Revolutionary War scenes for the rotunda. Twenty years later, four other artists began filling the remaining spaces with scenes of America's settlement by Europeans.
Congress was outgrowing its home. There were 15 states in the Union when the Capitol was designed. By 1850, there were 31 states. House membership increased during that period from 106 to 237.
In 1850, the Senate Committee on Public Buildings offered $500 to the architect with the best solution to the Capitol's space problems. Senators liked the idea of putting wings on the original building. House members preferred adding to the east front. Unable to agree, the House and Senate left the decision to the president. In a politically savvy move, President Millard Fillmore gave each a small victory. He asked the architect favored by the House, Thomas U. Walter of Philadelphia, to enlarge the Capitol by adding wings—as the Senate preferred.