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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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Images of the Era - 1789-1815

Watercolor View of the Capitol, by William Birch, ca. 1800

 

The Capitol was still under construction when Congress first met here in 1800.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Potomac River site of the Federal City

The Potomac River site of the Federal City, seen here from a distance, was a compromise between North and South.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Tobacco

Tobacco was one of the South’s principal products; like cotton, it depended on slave labor.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the 1790s

In the 1790s, New York City merchants established a trade and financial district near Wall Street.

The Tontine Coffee House by Francis Guy, ca. 1797; Collection of The New-York Historical Society, accession # 1907.32

An Algonkin village

An Algonkin village, late 18th century. The Algonkin peoples were found throughout New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces and often traded with early American colonists.

"A View of Point Levy," by Thomas Davies, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Greenwich Street in New York City

Greenwich Street in New York City typified urban life in the North around 1810.

I.N. Phelps Stokes Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Settlers seeking land

Settlers seeking land moved into the Northwest Territory, adding new states to the nation.

"I had gained the summit . . ." from Z.F. Smith, The History of Kentucky, 1886.

Courtesy Kentucky Historical Society

Indians fought settlement of the Northwest Territory

Indians fought settlement of the Northwest Territory until defeated at Fallen Timbers and the Thames River.

Culver Pictures

A pioneer's log cabin, ca. 1810

A pioneer's log cabin, ca. 1810

Reproduced from Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase, by O. Turner, General Collections, Library of Congress

Frontiersmen

Frontiersmen, living off the land with a few basic tools, opened new territory for settlers.

West Virginia State Archives, Diss Debar Collection

Settlers changed the landscape

Settlers changed the landscape as they transformed forests into fields.

Reproduced from Travels in the Interior Inhabited Parts of North America, by Patrick Campbell, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

The 1812 victory of the USS Constitution

The 1812 victory of the USS Constitution over the British Guerriere strengthened national support for the war.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Pawtucket Bridge and Falls with Slater Mill

This image of the Pawtucket Bridge and Falls with Slater Mill in Rhode Island shows the typical reliance on natural power sources for industry.

Rhode Island Historical Society, watercolor and ink on paper, ca. 1810, Anonymous (RHi X5 22)

This 1811 map of North America

This 1811 map of North America includes the Louisiana Territory, which doubled the nation’s size.

Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Invading British

Invading British troops burned the Capitol in 1814, causing extensive damage.

Architect of the Capitol

A fresco, painted by Constantino Brumidi

A fresco, painted by Constantino Brumidi for the Capitol, shows the Louisiana Purchase negotiations.

Architect of the Capitol

Industrial development drove the economy of Northern states

Industrial development drove the economy of Northern states, which sought congressional protection from foreign competition.

Collection of The New-York Historical Society, neg. #46215 (detail)

Industries like papermaking developed in the North

Industries like papermaking developed in the North, which had raw materials and capital for production.

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

The 1795 signing of the Treaty of Greenville

The 1795 signing of the Treaty of Greenville established a border with Indian Territory and took most of Ohio out of Indian control.

Chicago History Museum, P&S-1914.0001

President Washington joins in a procession

President Washington joins in a procession to lay the Capitol cornerstone in a Masonic ceremony, 1793.

Grand Lodge of Virginia AF & AM Library, Museum and Historical Foundation Allen E. Roberts Masonic Library and Museum

Trade and industry

Trade and industry fueled the economy of New York City and other Northern ports.

© CORBIS

Slave labor was fundamental to the Southern economy and culture.

1960.108.1.3.21 Courtesy of The Maryland Historical Society

New Orleans celebrated the 1803 transfer

New Orleans celebrated the 1803 transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States.

Collection of the Louisiana Historical Society, Courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum

Boston’s State Street

Boston’s State Street, like other Northern urban areas, was a thriving commercial center in the early 1800s.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The National Road

The National Road, authorized by Congress in 1806, was the first interstate highway.

Unidentified Artist, American, 19th century, Watercolor and pen and ink on paper, Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, 1800-1875, 60.859, Photograph (C) 2006 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston