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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After the civil war, the country faced dramatic change as a landscape of farms and villages yielded to factories and sprawling cities. An abundance of labor and plentiful raw materials brought prosperity to many, and the image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and opportunity encouraged immigration from all parts of the world. Many workers, including immigrants, racial minorities, and children, however, often toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for little pay. By the turn of the century, reformers in Congress were pressing for new ways to make government more responsive to the needs of poor farmers, laborers, and urban dwellers.

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The People's Platform

In the late 19th century, industrialization and migration from countryside to cities created new groups of Americans, new constituencies. The House gave them a forum. Frequent elections and small districts made the House a place where marginal or regional interests could gain seats and make their voices heard.

In the South, however, "Jim Crow" laws enforced segregation, pushing African-Americans out of the political process. Former rebels easily captured Southern seats.

Later in the century, the House became a national stage for rural Populists. In an era when unregulated development often favored the wealthy, Populists championed farmers and laborers who felt exploited or left behind.

Changing the House

Early in this era, Democrats dominating the House continually battled a Republican president or Senate, making it difficult to achieve results. Outside observers of the House described a legislature that depended too heavily on standing committees—"little legislatures"—to provide direction and get things done. Many observers also concluded that the House was hobbled by outdated rules and procedures. By the end of the period, a series of strong Speakers had helped to streamline operations and shepherd the chamber into the 20th century.

Battles Among the Branches 1879-1881  - 1879

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.

Many Republicans tried to protect the rights of black voters. Southern Democrats blocked these efforts, repeatedly tacking onto bills an amendment preventing the federal government from getting involved. Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes would then veto the bill. After two years of stalemate, the House Democrats finally abandoned the tactic.

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Seizing the Power to Act  - 1910

"... 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.

Reed revered the House, dismissing the Senate as "a place where good Representatives go when they die." During the 1880s, he complained about the inability of any House majority to act. But as Speaker, Reed foiled long-established delaying tactics by calmly ruling against members trying to stall the proceedings. Members feared Reed's quick, acid tongue in debate. His rulings once provoked a near riot on the floor, but his efforts made the Speaker once again the House's moving force and allowed the House to act.

"In my opinion there never has been a more perfectly equipped leader in any parliamentary body at any period."
— Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, recalling House Speaker Thomas Reed, 1910

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Reining in the Speaker, 1910  - 1910

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.

As conservative members retired or lost elections, however, Cannon's base of support gradually eroded. Conservative Republican control of the chamber became vulnerable to an alliance of Progressive Republicans and Democrats. In 1910, Nebraska's George W. Norris, one of the Progressive reformers, proposed new rules to curb the Speaker's power—igniting two days of nearly continuous debate. The Progressive–Democrat coalition prevailed, and many hailed Norris's resolution as a return to democracy in the House.

"The country don’t need any legislation."
— Speaker Joseph G. Cannon

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Beginnings of Reform 1912-1913  - 1913

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.

The House, responding to these concerns, established a special investigation panel, headed by Representative Arsene Pujo of Louisiana. It summoned captains of industry and top investment bankers (the so-called Money Trust), parading them before the committee and the press. The hearings exposed corrupt ties between banks and dozens of railroads, manufacturers, and utilities. These findings provided momentum for Congress to pass much-needed reforms, including the Federal Reserve Bank Act of 1913, which created a federally regulated banking system.

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Additional information for The House - 1877-1913

    Stool from House Reporters’ Gallery, ca. 1901

    The media have always been a key part of publicizing congressional proceedings. This stool once perched in the Reporters' Gallery above the House Chamber, used by reporters covering the House a century ago.

    Second image: The Reporters’ Gallery of the House of Representatives, by Theodore R. Davis, 1868

    Architect of the Capitol

  • James A. Garfield 1831–1881, Ohio

    Garfield was still a Union general when he was elected to Congress. A former teacher and college president, the general had a scholarly style. He headed three major committees in succession, and many speculated that Garfield would soon become Speaker. Instead, in 1880, the Republicans drafted him as their presidential candidate. Garfield became the only president elected directly from the House.

  • Thomas B. Reed 1839–1902, Maine

    A colleague pronounced Speaker Reed "the greatest parliamentary leader I ever saw." Reed hoped to parlay his parliamentary reputation into the presidency. "They might do worse," he concluded about his chances for the Republican nomination, "and they probably will." Reed ended his career when he resigned in opposition to American territorial expansion in the Spanish-American War.

    Thomas B. Reed, photograph by Elmer Chickering, 1894

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • George Norris 1861–1944, Nebraska

    Overnight, Norris became a hero among Progressive reformers when he took on the powerful Speaker, Joseph Cannon. It was his resolution that stripped from the Speaker all committee assignment powers and ended "czar" rule. A Republican loyalist, Norris joined with the Progressives when his district became more sympathetic to reform, and the Republican establishment harshly suppressed insurgency in its ranks.

    George Norris, photograph, ca. 1900

    Nebraska State Historical Society, RG3298 PH 1 170, copy and reuse restrictions apply

  • Joseph G. Cannon 1836–1926, Illinois

    As Speaker, "Uncle Joe" Cannon wielded autocratic power. Yet he remained popular among colleagues, admired for vigorously defending the House against encroachments by the Senate and president. A colorful character, Cannon proudly called himself the "hayseed member from Illinois." One hostess was warned never to come between the tobacco-chewing Speaker and a spittoon.

    Joseph G. Cannon, photograph, ca. 1906

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • House chamber, 1901

    Originally built to accommodate more than two hundred members, the chamber held nearly twice that number by the early 20th century. To ease crowding, the House reconfigured members’ desks and built an office building near the Capitol.

    Architect of the Capitol