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.

Preparing for Global War, 1941

Nazi Germany occupied Western Europe. Japanese forces were expanding across Asia. Many Americans became convinced that the United States faced grave threats. Were we ready? Early in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to extend the term of military service. But draftees, conscripted for one year, wanted to finish and go home. Could America afford to let them go?

The House Limits its Number

Every decade, the Census determines the size of each state’s House delegation. Before 1913 (when membership reached 435), total House membership expanded steadily as the population grew—with some states getting more members while others kept the same number even if their population decreased. The chamber became increasingly crowded, forcing members to abandon individual desks on the floor in favor of compact theater-style seating.

Reining in the Speaker, 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.

Seizing the Power to Act

"... 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.

Battles Among the Branches 1879-1881

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.


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