Due to a special event taking place in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, September 18, there will be no tours of the U.S. Capitol that day until approximately noon. The Capitol Visitor Center will remain open during this time, and guided tours in the Capitol Visitor Center will be available.

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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The House of Representatives 1789-1815

The People's Chamber

The founders expected the House of Representatives to take center stage in the new American government. They felt that its status as the only national institution with members elected directly by the people made the House uniquely important - and posed special dangers."The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy," warned Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention.

Through much of this early period, the House was indeed the nation's driving political force. It proposed the Bill of Rights, drafted legislation to create government agencies, carried out investigations, and shaped an aggressive policy toward Great Britain.

Getting Organized

The House of Representatives was new, yet rested on familiar foundations. The individual states had long experience with popularly elected legislatures. Representatives also looked to Britain's House of Commons, adopting ideas such as a presiding Speaker and basic parliamentary procedures. Its launch went smoothly.

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The Senate 1789-1815

Taking Shape

As the newly established Senate defined its constitutional role, it continually tested its authority against that of the president and House of Representatives, seeking the proper balance.Senators irritated President George Washington by rejecting several of his nominations and by refusing to consent immediately to Indian treaties he supported. Though many had expected the Senate simply to refine the work of the House, it took the lead in many areas, including legislation dealing with courts, foreign affairs, and banking.

A Place for Debate and Decision

In this period, the Senate operated with a membership ranging from 22 to 36. Unlike the much larger House of Representatives, where opportunities for debate were necessarily limited, the Senate developed a tradition of leisurely and extended debate.

For Congress’s first 125 years, state legislatures elected senators and often sent them instructions on how to vote. Most senators, however, preferred to make up their own minds. They met in secret before 1795, after which popular pressure forced them to admit the public. By the time the War of 1812 ended, the Senate stood ready to meet the challenges of an uncertain new era.

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The Capitol 1789-1815

A New City for a New Nation

Among the government’s first tasks was choosing a home. Congress had met in seven different cities since 1774. In 1790, it passed the Residence Act, authorizing a new, 10-mile-square, federally controlled seat of government on the Potomac River.Andrew Ellicott—with the African-American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker and others—surveyed this federal territory.

President George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant (he preferred Peter), a French-American artist and engineer, to plan the city. L’Enfant created a civic masterpiece of wide diagonal avenues, public plazas, and a great Mall. For the Capitol, he chose Jenkins Hill, calling it “a pedestal waiting for a monument.” The Capitol’s first two sections were built during this period.

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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