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.
The Congress we know today was created after the failure of a government under the Articles of Confederation, which left most powers to the states. In 1787, a convention of specially selected delegates proposed a new constitution that strengthened the national government and established a representative branch composed of a House and Senate.
From the beginning, the two bodies of Congress were meant to be different, yet interdependent. James Madison said they would be "as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on society, will admit." As a result, the House and Senate have different rules, traditions, and cultures. Yet in their shared responsibilities they function as the nation's single lawmaking body.
During its first quarter century, the new United States government had to find its way in the world while attending to the nation’s business. Leaders met with Indian nations and faced often-hostile relations with European powers while coping with conflicts between emerging political parties and working out relationships among the three new branches of government.
The First Congress (1789–1791) laid the foundation built upon by future congresses: It inaugurated the president, created government departments, established a system of courts, passed the Bill of Rights, and enacted laws needed by the new country to raise money and provide for other essential needs. Meeting first in New York City and then in Philadelphia, legislators moved in 1800 to the new Capitol in the District of Columbia.
The founding era concluded with the War of 1812. As the nation fought to confirm its independence from Great Britain, British forces invaded Washington in the summer of 1814 and set fire to its public buildings, including the Capitol. Despite the turbulence and uncertainty of these times, the nation successfully developed a functioning government based on the principles of representation.
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.
Through a series of compromises between 1820 and 1850 that allowed slavery in some new states and not others, legislators in Congress held the Union together. But these agreements, intended to calm bitter regional divisions, didn’t end the dispute. While they bought time for the nation's new political institutions to mature and strengthen, they allowed slavery to continue for another generation. America's expansion also took a heavy toll on Native Americans, who suffered numerous broken treaties as their land was taken and much of their various cultures destroyed.
In the same period, Congress passed legislation to survey routes for roads and canals, funded improvement of rivers and harbors, and created a banking system to promote the nation's economic self-sufficiency. In Washington, the first Capitol building was completed, and then quickly outgrown, as eight new states joined the Union.
Unprecedented growth in the 1850s strained the fragile agreements that had kept the nation united, but had also kept it part slave, part free. The addition of each new state to the Union rattled the delicate political balance carved out by compromises in Congress. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed residents of each of these new territories, rather than Congress, to decide whether to permit slavery. While intending to keep the nation together, this act inflamed sectional tensions, producing open warfare between pro- and antislavery forces in Kansas, and led directly to the Civil War.
At a cost of 600,000 lives, the war ended slavery and strengthened the federal government. As if to symbolize Washington’s growing role, the Capitol was enlarged during the war and topped with a massive new dome.
The postwar period proved tumultuous. Congress and the president clashed over how to readmit former Confederate states, a dispute climaxing in presidential impeachment. The era also saw great accomplishments. Legislators drafted constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and giving voting rights to black men, although full civil rights would not come to African-Americans for another century.
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.
By 1912, a nation of 48 states spanned the continent and was extending its influence overseas. With 10 new states entering the Union, the number of senators increased to 96 and the number of representatives to 435. As members of Congress moved into their first permanent office buildings, congressional service was becoming an increasingly demanding full-time occupation, a major change from the 19th century, when members seldom met for more than six months in each year.
Most Americans greeted the 20th century with optimism. The early decades saw economic growth and the expansion of democracy as women gained the vote. But two world wars, the Great Depression, and the nuclear age later tested such confidence.
World War I brought a new global perspective. It shifted attention from economic growth and expanding democratic institutions at home to the nation’s place in the larger world. When the war ended in 1918, Congress debated America’s role in global peacekeeping. Disputes with the president, and a postwar absence of public support for further international involvement, kept the Senate from approving U.S. participation in the League of Nations. After the devastation of World War II, this view changed, and Congress supported the establishment of the United Nations and joint mutual defense organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At home, Congress addressed the crisis of the Great Depression, beginning with an outpouring of economic recovery legislation in the first 100 days of its 1933 session.
Throughout these great transformations, the Capitol itself remained unchanged—although its campus grew with the addition of six new buildings.
Flexibility in meeting change is vital to the success of American democracy. And seldom has change come so quickly as in this era.
After World War II, veterans returned home eager to find jobs and start families. The postwar baby boom, combined with immigration, doubled the U.S. population over the next half century, increasing demands for schools, housing, and goods; and economic growth was unprecedented. In order to expand the benefits of American freedom and prosperity, Congress passed laws aiding the elderly, disabled, and poor, as well as historic civil rights legislation.
A four-decade Cold War shaped American foreign policy in the last half of the 20th century. Troops fought wars in Korea and Vietnam, and were stationed around the globe. When the Cold War ended, America faced new regional conflicts, as well as the growth of global terrorism. Confronting the challenges of an increasingly interdependent world, the American people continued to express their views within this singular forum of representative democracy—the Congress of the United States.
The Vision Continues: Government by the People
"America is not made. It's in the making."
Robert M. La Follette, Sr.,
Member, U.S. House of Representatives, 1885-1891; U.S. Senator 1906-1925
The American experiment in representative government has now been carried out for more than two centuries. Every two years, without interruption, a new Congress has convened to represent the American people. An institution that began with forty nine representatives and twelve senators, now consists of 535 members, five delegates, and one resident commissioner, who meet in a building that has become a symbol of freedom and democracy.
Today, Congress represents more than 300 million American citizens. By providing a forum for a diverse nation to find common ground through debate and compromise, these two unique institutions—the Senate and the House of Representatives—continue to prove the vitality and success of government by the people.