Donald R. Kennon is the former chief historian and vice president of the United States Capitol Historical Society. He is editor of the Ohio University Press series Perspectives on the History of Congress, 1789–1801.
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Civil War Congress and the Creation of Modern America
A Revolution on the Home Front
Edited by Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon
Drawn from a wide range of historical expertise and approaching the topic from a variety of angles, these essays explore the changes in life at home during the Civil War that led to a revolution in American society and set the stage for the making of modern America.
The American Civil War was the first military conflict in history to be fought with railroads moving troops and the telegraph connecting civilian leadership to commanders in the field. New developments arose at a moment’s notice. As a result, the young nation’s political structure and culture often struggled to keep up. When war began, Congress was not even in session.
“When Lincoln took office, in March 1861, the national government had no power to touch slavery in the states where it existed. Lincoln understood this, and said as much in his first inaugural address, noting: ‘I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.’”
During the long decade from 1848 to 1861 America was like a train speeding down the track, without an engineer or brakes. The new territories acquired from Mexico had vastly increased the size of the nation, but debate over their status—and more importantly the status of slavery within them—paralyzed the nation. Southerners gained access to the territories and a draconian fugitive slave law in the Compromise of 1850, but this only exacerbated sectional tensions.
Few images of early America were more striking, and jarring, than that of slaves in the capital city of the world’s most important free republic. Black slaves served and sustained the legislators, bureaucrats, jurists, cabinet officials, military leaders, and even the presidents who lived and worked there.
In 1815 the United States was a proud and confident nation. Its second war with England had come to a successful conclusion, and Americans seemed united as never before. The collapse of the Federalist party left the Jeffersonian Republicans in control of virtually all important governmental offices. This period of harmony—what historians once called the Era of Good Feeling—was not illusory, but it was far from stable.
Establishing Congress: The Removal to Washington, D.C., and the Election of 1800 focuses on the end of the 1790s, when, in rapid succession, George Washington died, the federal government moved to Washington, D.C., and the election of 1800 put Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party in charge of the federal government.
Like the ancient Roman Pantheon, the U.S. Capitol was designed by its political and aesthetic arbiters to memorialize the virtues, events, and persons most representative of the nation's ideals—an attempt to raise a particular version of the nation's founding to the level of myth. American Pantheon examines the influences upon not only those virtues and persons selected for inclusion in the American pantheon, but also those excluded.
Amid the turbulent swirl of foreign intrigue, external and internal threats to the young nation’s existence, and the domestic partisan wrangling of the 1790s, the United States Congress solidified its role as the national legislature. The ten essays in The House and Senate in the 1790s demonstrate the mechanisms by which this bicameral legislature developed its institutional identity.
At the age of thirty-six, in 1852, Lt. Montgomery Cunningham Meigs of the Army Corps of Engineers reported to Washington, D.C., for duty as a special assistant to the chief army engineer, Gen. Joseph G. Totten. It was a fateful assignment, both for the nation’s capital and for the bright, ambitious, and politically connected West Point graduate. Meigs's forty-year tenure in the nation's capital was by any account spectacularly successful.
Scholars today take for granted the existence of a “wall of separation” dividing the three branches of the federal government. Neither Separate nor Equal: Congress in the 1790s demonstrates that such lines of separation among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, however, were neither so clearly delineated nor observed in the first decade of the federal government's history.
The United States Capitol is a national cultural icon, and among the most visually recognized seats of government in the world. The past quarter century has witnessed an explosion of scholarly interest in the art and architectural history of the Capitol. The emergence of the historic preservation movement and the maturation of the discipline of art conservation have refocused attention on the Capitol as the American “temple of liberty.”
On March 4, 1789, New York City's church bells pealed, cannons fired, and flags snapped in the wind to celebrate the date set for the opening of the First Federal Congress. In many ways the establishment of Congress marked the culmination of the American Revolution as the ship of state was launched from the foundation of the legislative system outlined in Article I of the Constitution.