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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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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.

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Images of the Era - 1815-1851

The Capitol, engraving, by Wilfred Jones, 1848

With 31 states represented, Congress was outgrowing the rebuilt and newly expanded Capitol by 1850.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Traders opened the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to the Southwest in 1822.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In Virginia and other Southern states

In Virginia and other Southern states, agriculture continued to shape the landscape, economy, and culture.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The 1830 Indian Removal Act

The 1830 Indian Removal Act forced southeastern Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws, and Chickasaws westward onto reservations, along the Trail of Tears.

Jerome Tiger, Endless Trail, 1966, Museum purchase, 1966.11.2, ©2010 The Philbrook Museum of Art, Inc., Tulsa, Oklahoma

In 1839, African captives on the slave ship Amistad mutinied

In 1839, African captives on the slave ship Amistad mutinied; the Supreme Court upheld their right to freedom.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mid-Atlantic and Northern states had abundant natural resources for industrial power and production.

Courtesy of The Maryland Historical Society

The cotton gin made large-scale production of cotton profitable, leading to the expansion of slavery.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

U.S. forces invaded Mexico in 1846, claiming nearly half of Mexico’s territory for the United States. Here, General Scott enters Mexico City with his troops.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Prospectors rushed to California and Colorado following gold discoveries in 1848 and 1859.

Prospectors rushed to California and Colorado following gold discoveries in 1848 and 1859.

Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History

The woman suffrage movement officially began at this meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

The woman suffrage movement officially began at this meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

Culver Pictures

The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, provided passage from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.

The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, provided passage from the Hudson River to Lake Erie.

Reproduced from American Scenery, by Nathaniel Parker Willis, General Collections, Library of Congress

Treaties with Indian Nations

Early treaties between the United States and Native Americans were acts of nation-to-nation diplomacy. Trade agreements were forged with Indian nations in hopes of discouraging alliances with France or Britain. As settlers moved westward, however, they placed pressure on the federal government to urge tribes to abandon the land. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, giving the president power to negotiate "removal treaties," under which Indians were often made to give up lands in exchange for reservations.