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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Following the War of 1812, a stronger sense of national unity emerged in the United States. As America expanded westward, however, attempts to spread slavery into those new territories seriously divided the nation.

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Regional Disputes

With an equal number of senators representing slave and free states, the Senate became the setting for explosive issues that increasingly divided the industrialized North, the agricultural South, and the rapidly expanding West.

Emerging from the shadow of the House of Representatives, the Senate matured into a creative and active lawmaking body. By 1850, it had grown to 62 members. Yet, unlike the far larger, more crowded House Chamber, the Senate still offered a relatively intimate setting that encouraged extended debate.

A Forum for Orators

The Senate's tradition of letting senators debate without time limits, and its relatively small size, encouraged great speakers. The even split between North and South inspired the orators. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts delivered two of the most significant speeches in American political history on the Senate floor: his “Second Reply to Hayne” (1830) and the “Seventh of March 1850” address.

Passionate words reflected senators' determination to exercise their power. Bitter struggles with President Andrew Jackson and his successors over the economy tested and reinforced the Senate's power, allowing the chamber to evolve into its modern role as a leading forum for setting national policies.

Debating Slavery, 1830  - 1830

Who has more power, the Federal Government or the States? This basic question took on vast importance as arguments over slavery divided the nation. It also inspired one of the Senate's most famous debates.

Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina presented the Southern viewpoint. He argued that states could ignore Federal laws that violated constitutional rights. “Liberty first, and Union afterwards,” Hayne proclaimed. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts responded with a ringing defense of the Federal Government's power to establish policies benefiting all Americans. He concluded with the now immortal words, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" Webster's speech propelled him to the top rank of American statesmen and strengthened relations between the North and West—at the South's expense.

"Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"
— Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, January 27, 1830

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Votes and Vetoes: Defining Senate Powers 1834-1837  - 1834

The Senate gained new prominence in the 1830s as a result of its battle with President Andrew Jackson. Jackson's veto of an act to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States angered many members of Congress. When the President refused to comply with a Senate request for important documents related to bank operations, the Senate censured, or formally rebuked, him for assuming powers that he did not have under the Constitution. Jackson angrily rebuffed the Senate and dismissed its censure. Three years later, when Jackson's Democratic Party regained control of the Senate, the new majority voted to strike, or delete, the censure from the Senate Journal. Behind this debate lay a fierce struggle for power between Congress and the President over which branch would take the lead in shaping national policy.


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Keeping Secrets  - 1844

In Congress, one person may have reasons to keep information private, while another has equally compelling reasons to make it public. In 1844, as the volatile issue of slavery inflamed emotions, Senator Benjamin Tappan of Ohio gave a secret treaty to a journalist. He wanted to publicize sections of the treaty that would allow slavery in Texas.

The Senate censured Tappan and threatened to expel future members who "leaked," or revealed, secrets.

Four years later, someone in the Senate gave the still-secret Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War, to New York Herald reporter John Nugent. Determined to make good on its threat to enforce secrecy, the Senate ordered Nugent imprisoned in the Capitol until he named his source. Nugent refused. A frustrated Senate eventually released the reporter without discovering his source.

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For the Union: The Compromise of 1850  - 1850

Three great Senators dominated what has come to be called the Senate's "Golden Age of Oratory," from the 1830s to the 1850s. The legendary orator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts spoke for industrial New England. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the "Great Compromiser," represented the Western frontier. The Southerner John C. Calhoun of South Carolina defended states' rights and the institution of slavery. Yet all three represented the United States. Alternately feuding and cooperating, this "great triumvirate" helped forge major legislative agreements, culminating with the Compromise of 1850.

The compromise included the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to return escaped slaves to their owners. By supporting it, Webster defied his antislavery constituents in Massachusetts, sacrificing his political career. The Massachusetts Senator believed passionately that he should defend the interests of the whole nation.

"I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American."
—Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, March 7, 1850

"I owe a paramount allegiance to the whole Union—a subordinate one to my own State."
—Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, July 22, 1850

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Additional information for The Senate - 1815-1851

  • Letter from John Fairfield to His Wife, 1843

    Senator Fairfield of Maine wrote to his wife almost daily. His observations about Washington life and the advice and questions to his family echo the informality of today’s telephone conversations and e-mails.

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

  • Simeon Bassett’s Bible, 1827

    This Bible purchased by Doorkeeper Bassett was kept on the vice president’s table in the old Senate Chamber and used to administer the oath of office to senators until 1882.

    Collection of the U.S. Senate

    Senate Chamber Desk Used by Daniel Webster (reproduction)

    First Image:

    In 1819, Thomas Constantine made 48 desks for the Senate Chamber at a cost of $34 each. The desks are still in use today.

    Second Image:

    In a venerable tradition, senators inscribe their names in the drawers of their Senate Chamber desks, symbolically linking themselves to their predecessors

    Collection of the U.S. Senate

  • United States Senate Chamber, engraved by Thomas Doney after J. Whitehorne, mezzotint published by Edward Anthony, 1849

    From the late 1820s into the 1850s, dramatic oratory attracted large crowds to the theater-like chamber that Kentucky Senator Henry Clay dubbed “this noble room.”

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Thomas Hart Benton, daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, ca. 1844–1858

    Benton served in the Senate as a Jacksonian Democrat for 30 years, although as a young man he fought Andrew Jackson in a duel. Benton also changed his mind about slavery. At first, he supported its expansion into Western territories. But later, he concluded that slavery hindered Western settlement and undermined national unity.

    Thomas Hart Benton, daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, ca. 1844–1858

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Henry Clay, daguerreotype by Josiah Johnson Hawes and Albert Sands Southworth, ca. 1850

    Known as the “Great Compromiser,” Clay led the Whig Party in the Senate after being Speaker of the House. His compromises aimed to stimulate the national economy, end disputes over slavery, and avoid civil war. Frustrated in his attempts to become President, he proclaimed he “would rather be right than be President.”

    14.0 x 10.8 cm (5 1/2 x 4 1/4 in.). Gift of I.N. Phelps Stokes, Edward S. Hawes, Alice Mary Hawes, and Marion Augusta Hawes, 1937 (37.14.15).

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

    Image copyright (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY.

    Daniel Webster, daguerreotype by Josiah Johnson Hawes and Albert Sands Southworth, ca. 1850

    Webster’s 1830 defense of the sovereignty of the National Government was probably the finest moment of the “Great Orator” in debate. Twenty years later, he sacrificed his Senate career for the cause of national unity by endorsing the Compromise of 1850. Provisions of the compromise that prohibited Northern States from harboring runaway slaves outraged Webster’s political base.

    Daniel Webster, daguerreotype by Josiah Johnson Hawes and Albert Sands Southworth, ca. 1850
    21.5 x 16.6 cm (8 7/16 x 6 9/16 in.). Gift of I. N. Phelps Stokes, Edward S. Hawes, Alice Mary Hawes, and Marion Augusta Hawes, 1937 (37.14.2).
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.
    Image copyright (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY.

    Daniel Webster’s Quill Pen, 1800s

    The Massachusetts Historical Society

  • John Caldwell Calhoun, photograph ca. 1855, after the daguerreotype by unidentified artist, 1845

    At the start of his political career, Calhoun favored a strong National Government. But he became an outspoken defender of states’ rights. His position changed as Northern States grew more populous and added congressional representatives. To protect the interests of the South, he believed States should be able to nullify Federal law within their borders.

    NPG.77.258 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution