Amending the Constitution - 1789
What did the newly written Constitution say about freedom of speech? Freedom of religion? Nothing. The drafters of the Constitution were split over whether to list individual rights. Most felt that these were matters for state or local governments. During the first congressional election campaign, however, voters changed the minds of many lawmakers—including Virginia’s James Madison, a primary framer of the Constitution.
Congressman Madison agreed that the Constitution should protect individual rights. But he and others worried that a new round of amendments could get out of hand, reshaping the government before it had a chance to prove itself. Madison carefully boiled down for the House more than 200 proposed amendments into 19 changes listing basic rights. Congress eventually passed 12. The states ratified 10 of these amendments—today’s Bill of Rights.
"[T]he first Congress ... ought to prepare and recommend to the States for ratification, the most satisfactory provisions for all essential rights, particularly the rights of Conscience in the fullest latitude, the freedom of the press, trials by jury, security against general warrants &c."
— Representative James Madison of Virginia, 1789
1792 Federal Fact Finders - 1792
Good government depends on good information. To get an accurate understanding of issues, congressional committees investigate. One goal of investigations is to uncover whether government agencies are performing effectively or whether new laws are needed.
The first congressional investigation, in 1792, was in response to news that Shawnee and Miami Indians had destroyed General Arthur St. Clair's army. The House formed a committee of inquiry, which asked for War Department papers. President Washington agreed—cautiously. The inquiry that followed blamed the War and Treasury departments for the defeat. Although the president's supporters prevented the House report from becoming public, the process firmly established the power of Congress to investigate.
"It was due to justice, to truth, and to the national honor, to take effectual measures to investigate the business thoroughly."
— Representative Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, 1792
1798 The Rough and Tumble of Debate - 1798
In a democracy, disagreement doesn’t mean disloyalty. But political parties were new in the United States, and it took time to accept the idea that opposition can strengthen a democratic society. As Congress divided into opposing political parties (Federalists, often viewed as aristocratic, versus the sometimes rambunctious Jeffersonian Republicans), debates frequently led to strong words—and, on rare occasions, more.
During a 1798 debate, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a Jeffersonian Republican, responded to taunts about his military record by spitting tobacco juice in the face of Roger Griswold, a Connecticut Federalist. Outraged that the House didn’t punish “the spitting Lyon,” Griswold took matters into his own hands. He attacked Lyon with a cane. Lyon then grabbed a pair of fire tongs. The two ended up wrestling on the floor of the House.
1811 Henry Clay: The Speaker as Leader - 1811
The Constitution says that the House of Representatives "shall chuse their Speaker." But it doesn’t say what a Speaker does. The office evolved along with the House. At first, Speakers were largely neutral, presiding over debates and maintaining order. Then came Henry Clay of Kentucky.
Clay became Speaker in 1811, on his first day in the House. Not content simply to oversee the proceedings, he was determined to lead. Clay headed the "War Hawks" faction, which championed American interests against British activity on the seas and Western frontier. He assigned his supporters to committees involved in matters of war and peace with Britain and backed the War of 1812. Clay's forceful personality stamped the House with a partisan spirit and transformed the Speaker into its political leader.
"Come up, and you shall see how I will throw the reins over their necks."
— Speaker Henry Clay