The House

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.

Hon. James G. Blaine, Representative from Maine, engraving by George Edward Perine, ca. 1863–1876

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Some House leaders have exercised influence through their powerful personalities. Blaine was a striking example. He became Speaker in 1869, at the start of his fourth term in the House. Blaine chose to lead behind the scenes rather than through his oratory or parliamentary skills. His three terms as Speaker were admired for his firm and fair command over the House.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Hon. J.H. Rainey, Representative from South Carolina, engraving by Charles Bryan Hall, ca. 1870–1879

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A slave in his youth, Rainey was the first African-American to serve in the House. When Speaker James G. Blaine turned the gavel over temporarily to Rainey during an 1874 debate, Rainey became the first black American to preside over the House. Yet despite his congressional membership, he was still refused service in a Virginia dining room.

Hon. J.H. Rainey, Representative from South Carolina, engraving by Charles Bryan Hall, ca. 1870–1879

 

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Thaddeus Stevens 1792–1868, Pennsylvania

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Elderly and frail, Stevens was nonetheless the strongman of the House. Although he was a high-minded champion of abolition and practiced temperance, he was not particularly religious, frequenting Washington's gambling houses and liberally using salty language. But in debate he was a formidable opponent. He once taunted, "I yield to the gentleman for a few feeble remarks."

Records of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., 111-B-1458 (Brady Collection)

The End of an Era 1867-1872

Priorities changed quickly after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. The generation that had fought against slavery now turned its attention to the nation’s economic growth. Deals involving the transcontinental railroad, however, illustrated the potential for corruption as the nation rapidly grew.

The Second American Revolution

“All men are created equal,” proclaimed the Declaration of Independence. Nearly a century later, the Fifteenth Amendment redeemed that promise. The right to vote, it stated, could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Educated African-Americans provided leadership for freed slaves. In 1870, Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina became the first black member to serve in the House. During Reconstruction, 14 African-Americans held House seats. Eight had been born into slavery, six born free.

Passion and Deadlock, 1858

Fighting broke out over slavery—on the House floor. The violent slavery disputes among settlers in “Bloody Kansas” provoked passions in Congress. During a late-night House session in 1858, South Carolina’s Laurence Keitt called Pennsylvania’s Galusha Grow a “black Republican puppy.” Grow responded by knocking down Keitt. Suddenly, dozens of members were pushing, punching, and wrestling on the House floor.

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