Notes from watching Ken Burns' The Congress.read more
In 200 years Congress has pushed open the west (to California), built railroads, freed slaves, made war, passed social security, put army men through college, and paid to land men on the moon.
Driven Indians from their land. Outlawed alcohol. Created daylight savings and Mother’s Day.
March 1789, in New York City hall (which was the temporary capital), the first Congress was held. Only 21 people showed up, and so it was adjourned since they didn’t have enough to make any decision.
They first passed the first 10 amendments. The bill of rights.
They created the department of treasury, state, and war.
They set the salary of George Washington, the president, to $25,000/year. A huge salary.
This was all improvised.
Library of Congress was establish and $15 million for Louisiana territory, doubling the size of the country. $2500 for Lewis and Clark to explore it. This was 1800.
Then the two party system evolved.
1812 was when the congress declared war for the first time.
1814, the British invaded Washington and burned the capital. Congress was not in session.
The big thing about the Congress was having the power to levy taxes and to declare war. That was huge. Giving that power to the people.
Since there was a middle chamber in Congress that was between the house and the senate, nobody knew who had authority. And so merchants set up shop there, and sold stoves, pianos, etc.
In 1820, the crisis that would lead to civil war began. The Missouri compromise, admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. Every time a new state was added, it was feared the union was going to collapse.
Manifest destiny was to spread all the way to the west.
Then the question of whether California would be a free slave or a slave state. Clay, the senator, was the big guy trying to get a compromise to keep a union. Webster sided with him, and it worked. It kept civil war away for 10 more years.
After the end of the war, the first black man was elected to the senate. The person who last held the seat from Mississippi, was Jefferson Davis (who was the president of the confederate states of America).
In the first version of the constitution, it was the state legislatures that elected senators, and so people who controlled the legislatures could continue getting elected to senate. This created “bosses”, who ruled the senate. When this was changed with the 17th amendment, it was the biggest change to Congress in its history. (Around 1913), they also put in place the federal reserve system, which also began a federal currency (what we use today). This also regulated banks more.
In 1862, Congress passed the land-grant college act 1862, gave massive amounts of land (federal land within their state) that the state could sell to finance or build on top of colleges that specialized in “agriculture and mechanical arts”. Some states created new colleges with it, others gave it to existing colleges to create an “A&M” college for agriculture and mechanical arts. Some examples of colleges created from this: NC state, Virginia tech, UGA, Clemson, Purdue, Texas A&M, and so many more. It seems like very many of the “university of ____” were created from this bill. They also were required to have a military program, and that’s where ROTC comes from. New York didn’t have enough federal land inside NY, so it got to choose federal land in the United States, it chose some timberland in Wisconsin which was brought in a huge amount of money, this funded Cornell (Cornell fulfills it’s federal obligation by managing a couple smaller colleges).
In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense education act to fund student loans, so more people would go to college. This was actually so they could compete with Russia in the space race.
Also in 1862 was the homestead act, which basically gave people free federal land if they applied for it, typically thinking they would start their own farms. Blacks were encouraged to apply, but discrimination slowed their ability to get the grants. In some ways, this bill was passed because during the civil war, the radical southerners had seceded.
1889, first Congress to spend 1 billion in peace time. Also when they allowed congressmen to hire a staff, of just one person.
There was one man, the chairman of the rules committee, who is in charge of which bills are discussed. He basically singlehandedly kills bills that progressives were pushing. Then, on saint patricks day while the speaker’s allies were out of the building, someone introduced a resolution to make the rules committee elected by the house, not by the speaker. It passed and his reign finally ended.
In the 1930s began a new wave, the New Dealers, with FDR as president. Some legislation was Social Security, housing for the poor, and laborers right to organize.
The first woman who was elected to Congress, she voted no to America declaring war on Germany, and was among others. She voted no again in 1941 on declaring war against Japan. She was the only person in Congress to vote no.
Capital hill is almost like a little town. There’s a bank, post office, subway, police force, carpenter shop, resident architect, physician, restaurants. A daily newspaper as well.
Criticizing the slow moving Congress is in a sense critiquing democracy itself. Something to think about. Compromise, compromise, compromise is what the founders had envisioned.