A reservation is required for a tour of the U.S. Capitol. Visit the Plan a Visit page for information on how to obtain a reservation.

October 2011 - March 2012

Wood engraving, interior of the Merrimac during combat with the Monitor, Le Monde Illustré, ca. 1862–1865
Open through March 2012

The issue of slavery permeated debate in Congress from the founding of the country through the mid-nineteenth century. The failure to resolve differences between states on the issue of slavery led to the Civil War. To manage both the war effort and its consequences, Congress crafted new legislation that addressed a changing nation.

For more than two hundred years, the Capitol has been the place where representatives of the American people have debated how best to achieve the nation’s ideals. This exhibit displays some of our most important documents to illustrate the role of Congress in defining and helping to realize national goals and aspirations.

The aspirations of unity, freedom, common defense, general welfare, knowledge, and exploration all derive from the Constitution. The Preamble declares that the highest goals of the government are “to form a more perfect Union,” and to provide for “common defense,” “general Welfare,” and the “Blessings of Liberty.” Article I gives Congress the power to promote “Science and useful Arts,” which has resulted in congressional support of knowledge and exploration. The meaning of liberty is further defined in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which guarantee specific freedoms.