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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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After the civil war, the country faced dramatic change as a landscape of farms and villages yielded to factories and sprawling cities. An abundance of labor and plentiful raw materials brought prosperity to many, and the image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and opportunity encouraged immigration from all parts of the world. Many workers, including immigrants, racial minorities, and children, however, often toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for little pay. By the turn of the century, reformers in Congress were pressing for new ways to make government more responsive to the needs of poor farmers, laborers, and urban dwellers.

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Images of the Era - 1877-1913

Children stroll toward the Capitol’s east front.

By 1903, visitors could enjoy the Capitol’s beautifully landscaped grounds.

Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In 1889 and 1893, homesteaders staked claims on land in the Cherokee Strip, Oklahoma Territory.

National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

Tribal leaders, including these Arapaho and Cheyenne delegates, negotiated with federal authorities in Washington, D.C.

National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

To encourage settlement of the West, the government opened former Indian reservation land to homesteaders.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The 1898 explosion of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba sparked the Spanish-American War.

National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

A new wave of European immigrants, fleeing hardships and lured by America’s promise of prosperity, expanded the population.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Photographer Lewis Hine documented child labor to urge passage of legislation protecting children from abuse.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Pittsburgh’s steel mills propelled industrial prosperity, but left its residents living in smoke and smog.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New York clothing workers carried signs in several languages demanding a closed shop and an eight-hour day.

International Ladies Garment Workers Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University

The U.S.-controlled Panama Canal, completed in 1913, was a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Affluent society enjoyed luxurious surroundings like these grounds of a casino at Newport, Rhode Island.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Ku Klux Klan used terrorism and violence against African-Americans to assert white supremacy.

Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center

In 1913, Congress authorized dam construction in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, despite objections of conservationists.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In 1913, women suffragists staged demonstrations in major cities as the fight for the right to vote intensified.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Suffrage for Women

Women struggled for more than seventy years to win the right to vote. After the Civil War, suffrage activists waged their campaigns at the state level, and Western states were the first to grant suffrage to women. The national movement received a decisive boost during World War I when women swelled the workforce, replacing the men who had been called to war. By the time the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1919, the House Judiciary Committee would observe that a woman's right to vote "is plainly in the signs of the times."

Many African-Americans turned to sharecropping after the Civil War and continued to live in poverty.

Brown Brothers, Sterling, PA