In 1948, Americans watched anxiously as a dramatic espionage tale unfolded in the House of Representatives. Whittaker Chambers, a Time editor, confessed to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that he’d been a spy for the Soviet Union. Chambers accused a former State Department official, Alger Hiss, of being among his Communist contacts.
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.
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.
Nazi Germany occupied Western Europe. Japanese forces were expanding across Asia. Many Americans became convinced that the United States faced grave threats. Were we ready? Early in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to extend the term of military service. But draftees, conscripted for one year, wanted to finish and go home. Could America afford to let them go?
In 1916, four years before women nationwide won the right to vote, Montana’s Jeannette Rankin—the first woman elected to Congress—captured a House seat. (Montana granted women the vote in 1914.) A fighter for woman suffrage, the dedicated pacifist also was among 50 House members opposing U.S. entry into World War I.
The Great Depression devastated families and shattered lives. By 1933, one in four American workers was unemployed. People were desperate. Representative Wright Patman of Texas, a World War I veteran, introduced a bill for early payment of a $1,000 veterans’ bonus, originally scheduled to be awarded in 1945.
Every decade, the Census determines the size of each state’s House delegation. Before 1913 (when membership reached 435), total House membership expanded steadily as the population grew—with some states getting more members while others kept the same number even if their population decreased. The chamber became increasingly crowded, forcing members to abandon individual desks on the floor in favor of compact theater-style seating.
After the phenomenal industrial growth of the late 1800s, reformers feared that unregulated big business would use its influence for private gain at the expense of public good.
Many members of Congress believe that fewer laws are better. "The country don't need any legislation," was the way the colorful Joseph G. Cannon, Republican of Illinois, put it. Elected Speaker in 1903, "Uncle Joe" Cannon was among the more conservative House members. He wielded his power to stop President Theodore Roosevelt's crusade to regulate business and land use.
"... a slow-moving giant hulk of a barge ... a form dressed completely in black, out of whose collar rose an enormous round, clean-shaven baby face." A ghost haunting the House? No, that's how a colleague described Representative Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine.
After the Civil War, military conflict turned into political conflict. The Constitution originally had considered a slave only three-fifths of a person when calculating a state's House seats. Now, however, former slaves counted as full citizens, enabling the South to balance the North's rapid population growth. After Reconstruction, Southern states accompanied their return to national politics with a campaign of terror against African-American voters. Democrats, the party favored by white Southerners, gained control of the House. Republicans held the presidency. Partisan rivalry flared.
The House moved into its present chamber in 1857. Individual desks, often crowded with papers, served as a representative’s only office.
Architect of the Capitol