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.

Abraham Lincoln, daguerreotype attributed to Nicholas H. Shepherd, ca. 1847

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The Mexican War dominated Lincoln’s single term in the House. As a member of the Whig Party, he opposed the war and introduced a resolution calling for proof that the initial fighting had broken out on American soil, not on Mexican or disputed territory. His district’s practice of rotating its member among its three counties prevented Lincoln from serving another term.


Hon. David Wilmot, engraving, Harper’s Weekly, 1857

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Wilmot was an unexpected champion of antislavery policies. A strong supporter of President James K. Polk’s expansionist program, Wilmot surprised everyone with his amendment to prohibit slavery in all territories acquired in the Mexican War. Polk forced Wilmot to promise never to introduce his “mischievous and foolish amendment” again, but Wilmot had become an antislavery hero.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

John Quincy Adams, daguerreotype by Josiah Johnson Hawes and Albert Sands Southworth, ca. 1850

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12.0 x 9.0 cm (4 3/4 x 3 9/16 in.). Gift of I.N. Phelps Stokes, Edward S. Hawes, Alice Mary Hawes, and Marion August Hawes, 1937 (37.14.34).

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

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



The House of Representatives, by Samuel F. B. Morse, completed 1822; probably reworked 1823

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The House met in this grand space from 1807 until 1857. The artist has captured the House Chamber at dusk. The room is now used as National Statuary Hall.

Oil on canvas, 86 7/8 x 130 5/8 inches
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund, 11.14

House Member’s Desk and Chair, ca. 1818-1857

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After the British burned the Capitol in 1814, only a roofless shell remained. Once the chambers were rebuilt, the legislators needed somewhere to sit. The House ordered 188 desks and chairs like these for their chamber. Cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine built them in just four months.

First image:
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives (desk)

Second image:
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Miller in memory of Nellie Holmead Fowler (chair)

Old Man Eloquent

John Quincy Adams was President of the United States. After that came the high point of his life: 17 years in the House of Representatives.

Adams thrived on congressional combat. When Southern members imposed a rule that automatically prohibited debate on antislavery petitions, Adams was outraged. To "gag" citizens who petition their government, he thundered, was a "direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the rules of this House, and of the rights of my constituents."


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