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.
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.
At a cost of 600,000 lives, the war ended slavery and strengthened the federal government. As if to symbolize Washington’s growing role, the Capitol was enlarged during the war and topped with a massive new dome.
The postwar period proved tumultuous. Congress and the president clashed over how to readmit former Confederate states, a dispute climaxing in presidential impeachment. The era also saw great accomplishments. Legislators drafted constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and giving voting rights to black men, although full civil rights would not come to African-Americans for another century.
A Symbol for the Nation
A dramatic transformation reshaped the Capitol in the middle of the 19th century as expansion and additions created the structure familiar to us today. New wings flanking the earlier structure tripled the size of the Capitol.
A taller and highly decorated iron dome replaced the plain wooden structure that had previously topped the building.
During the Civil War, the Capitol emerged as a powerful symbol of national unity. It served as a stirring landmark for countless soldiers who marched through Washington determined to see the Union restored and to see the Capitol—particularly its grand new dome—completed.
As the nation grew, so did its government. Congress enlarged the Capitol with new wings flanking the original building. Each wing was three stories high, 140 feet wide, and 235 feet long, built of brick faced with Massachusetts marble. Construction took 17 years (1851-1868).
Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter designed the wings. The engineer Montgomery C. Meigs (and, later, William B. Franklin) oversaw their construction. These additions provided spacious new chambers for the House of Representatives and Senate, with scores of new offices and committee rooms, plus grand lobbies, corridors, and staircases. For the convenience of lawmakers (who often lived in crowded boardinghouses), the wings also included bathing rooms, barbershops, and restaurants. Steam-powered fans drove a central heating and ventilation system, and every room was lighted by gas. In 1852, Walter also designed an innovative cast-iron room for the Library of Congress.
Congress needed more space, but no one wanted the beloved Capitol overshadowed by its new additions. Secretary of State Daniel Webster suggested using narrow corridors to connect the new wings, leaving the old building visually intact. People also felt it important that the wings appear to grow naturally from the older building.
On the inside of the wings, no attempt was made to imitate the old interiors. Instead, modern designs and materials were used. Marble staircases led to spacious galleries overlooking the new chambers, which featured highly decorated iron ceilings and stained-glass skylights. Doors and windows stood in elaborate—and fireproof—cast-iron frames. English encaustic tile (embedded with colorful patterns) paved the floors, a vivid contrast to the brick and stone floors of the old building.
Expansion provided additional space that offered a showcase for American creativity. Sculptors filled porticoes with statues, and designed elaborate stair rails and bronze doors. They also turned their talents to commonplace features, such as door pulls. Painters covered walls and ceilings with murals, drawing on both ancient and American subjects for inspiration.
Artists from Italy, France, Germany, England, and the United States crafted decorations. The work of Thomas Crawford, the most celebrated of the sculptors employed, can be seen in the Senate pediment and the Statue of Freedom atop the dome. The Capitol’s leading artist, the painter Constantino Brumidi, created vibrant frescoes for rooms and corridors. His greatest work, The Apotheosis of Washington, graces the canopy over the inner dome.
What to do with an empty room? After the House moved to its new chamber in 1857, its former hall filled with peddlers hawking everything from gingerbread cakes to mousetraps. History-minded citizens and members of Congress deplored its sorry condition. Some suggested rebuilding the room into offices. Others advocated a fine-art gallery.
Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont proposed converting the chamber into a National Statuary Hall, displaying figures of notable Americans. States would be asked to donate two bronze or marble statues of deceased men or women worthy of commemoration. A new marble floor would help the room play this new role. President Abraham Lincoln signed Morrill’s proposal into law on July 2, 1864. The tradition continues today, though statues now are distributed throughout the building.
Fire destroyed much of the Library of Congress in 1851, highlighting the vulnerability of the rotunda’s wooden dome. The architect Thomas Walter designed a fireproof dome better suited to the growing building. On March 3, 1855, Congress authorized the cast-iron replacement. Workers removed the old dome and began installing the new one soon thereafter.
For years, the project’s supervising engineer purchased iron from various foundries—until the New York firm of Janes, Fowler, Kirtland & Company won the exclusive iron contract in 1860. When the Civil War broke out, the administration warned the company not to expect further payment. The firm proceeded nevertheless. This perseverance struck President Lincoln as a symbol that the Union, like the dome, would continue. Despite wartime conditions that drained manpower and materials, construction went ahead. Former slaves—including Philip Reid, who helped cast the Statue of Freedom that was placed atop the dome in December 1863—helped ease labor shortages.