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.
The Congress we know today was created after the failure of a government under the Articles of Confederation, which left most powers to the states. In 1787, a convention of specially selected delegates proposed a new constitution that strengthened the national government and established a representative branch composed of a House and Senate.
From the beginning, the two bodies of Congress were meant to be different, yet interdependent. James Madison said they would be "as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on society, will admit." As a result, the House and Senate have different rules, traditions, and cultures. Yet in their shared responsibilities they function as the nation's single lawmaking body.
Unprecedented growth in the 1850s strained the fragile agreements that had kept the nation united, but had also kept it part slave, part free. The addition of each new state to the Union rattled the delicate political balance carved out by compromises in Congress. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed residents of each of these new territories, rather than Congress, to decide whether to permit slavery. While intending to keep the nation together, this act inflamed sectional tensions, producing open warfare between pro- and antislavery forces in Kansas, and led directly to the Civil War.
At a cost of 600,000 lives, the war ended slavery and strengthened the federal government. As if to symbolize Washington’s growing role, the Capitol was enlarged during the war and topped with a massive new dome.
The postwar period proved tumultuous. Congress and the president clashed over how to readmit former Confederate states, a dispute climaxing in presidential impeachment. The era also saw great accomplishments. Legislators drafted constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and giving voting rights to black men, although full civil rights would not come to African-Americans for another century.
Defending the Union
Sectional divisions blocked House business before the Civil War. When war came, the House concentrated on winning.
With peace, the House turned to issues of recovery. The House remained deadlocked even as conflict loomed. But Southern congressmen soon defected to the Confederacy, freeing Republican representatives to act. They abolished slavery in territory held by Union troops and passed long-stalled bills to build railroads and open land to homesteaders. After the war, Republicans demanded that the House punish rebels more harshly than Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson recommended. Ultimately, their agenda faltered under its own weight. Republicans failed to remove President Johnson through impeachment. Moreover, the effective resistance of former Confederates frustrated their vision of reshaping the South, socially and economically.
Partisan Politics and the Radical Republicans
In the deeply divided house, balances between parties and regions proved critical. No one bloc dominated, but antislavery Republicans were gaining support. The House remained deadlocked. When the South seceded, however, the logjam broke and Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens assumed unchecked power. After the ambitious postwar Reconstruction failed, a new political era arose in which fresh debates about national economic development replaced old battles about sectionalism and slavery.
All Compromise Fails
Secession of Southern states and the outbreak of war fostered unity among those who remained in Congress. Senators passed bills to meet wartime emergencies and spur economic development.
After the Civil War, the Senate’s large Republican majority aimed to set policies for reconstructing the South and protecting freed slaves, and members hotly disputed President Andrew Johnson’s more lenient policies toward the former rebels. This power struggle led the House to impeach Johnson. He was acquitted at his Senate trial by one vote.
War brought rapid change to Congress. By 1862, the Senate had expelled 14 members for disloyalty to the Union. It also created a loyalty oath to ensure that former Confederates could not simply return to national office. During postwar Reconstruction, when newly readmitted Southern states again elected senators, Mississippi elected the Senate’s first two African-American members.
A Symbol for the Nation
A dramatic transformation reshaped the Capitol in the middle of the 19th century as expansion and additions created the structure familiar to us today. New wings flanking the earlier structure tripled the size of the Capitol.
A taller and highly decorated iron dome replaced the plain wooden structure that had previously topped the building.
During the Civil War, the Capitol emerged as a powerful symbol of national unity. It served as a stirring landmark for countless soldiers who marched through Washington determined to see the Union restored and to see the Capitol—particularly its grand new dome—completed.