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American History as Seen in
Congressional Documents, 1774-1873

1774-1789 | 1789-1812 | 1812-1824 | 1824-1873

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Congressional Pugilists. [1798]
(Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-155)

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Con-g-ss Embark'd on board the Ship Constitution of America... 1790.
(Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-1552)
  1774-1789: The Struggle for Independence

The colonies join forces in the Continental Congress, secure their independence, and agree to establish a new form of government. The Constitutional Convention draws up the blueprint for a new nation. This story of the birth of a new nation is told in the thirty-four volumes of the Journals of the Continental Congress, the essays of The Federalist Papers, and in the personal correspondence reproduced in the Letters of the Delegates to Congress. Accounts of the Constitutional Convention such as The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 and The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution relay the debates and decisions of the Founding Fathers as they construct a structure for the federal government.


1789-1812: Charting the Republic

Congress establishes a government for the new nation. Party politics develop and sectional tensions recur. The view westward opens dramatically with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, as democracy expands at home. The new country tries to work out an accommodation with its Native American neighbors and to avoid entanglement in the conflicts of the Old World.

The story of Congress in this period comes through two major records: the official Journals kept by the House and the Senate and the Annals of Congress, the main account of the Congressional debates. The Journal of William Maclay, senator from Pennsylvania, provides unusual glimpses of the members of the first Congress, on and off the Senate floor. The American State Papers series offers hundreds of documents that Congress deemed worthy of publication. The Statutes at Large present the laws and treaties approved by Congress and signed by the president.


1812-1824: Conflict and Resolution

Conflict with Great Britain strains the fabric of the United States as the mercantile centers, particularly in New England, suffer from the embargo on trade with Europe. After the war, the Monroe Doctrine (1823) states the young country's determination to run its own affairs without interference from Europe. Tensions over the unresolved issues of slavery are eased by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

The ebb and flow of debate on foreign and domestic issues comes vividly alive in the volumes of the House and Senate Journal and the Annals of Congress, which during this period provide a fuller, almost verbatim account of debates on the floor. The myriad letters, reports, and other documents collected in the American State Papers reveal the inner workings of the evolving Republic, while the laws and treaties published in the Statutes at Large present its public face.


1824-1873: Crucible of Nationhood

Congress faces an increasingly complex web of issues as the "Era of Good Feeling" (1817-24) gives way to the growth of party politics. The progress of the Industrial Revolution creates both opportunities and tensions in the economy and society. The growing economy fuels the construction of canals and railroads, but the Bank War of the 1830s highlights continuing stresses in the financial system. Attempts to extend the franchise to all adults achieve gains for white males, but falter for women and African Americans. As immigration surges, a nativist reaction gains strength. Pressure for territorial expansion, regional differences over foreign trade, and the continuing debate over slavery weigh in the decisions on admission of new states. Despite the best efforts of many in Congress, the nation moves toward Civil War.

The role of Congress as a body and of its two houses changes considerably over this period. Legislative activism reaches a new peak during the Civil War years; laws on homesteading, railroads, banking, and land-grant colleges lay the foundation for the dynamic era that follows the Civil War. Reconstruction brings achievements and tensions: the first African-American congressmen and the first impeachment of a president.

The records of Congress reveal the grand themes of American history and the intimate details of citizens' lives. One can follow the debates over issues of governance and read the petitions of war widows seeking pensions. The House and Senate Journals provide the official record of floor action. Congressional debate was recorded first in the Register of Debates and subsequently in the Congressional Globe, with ever increasing accuracy and detail. The American State Papers provide the documents and reports of the legislative and executive branches through 1838. The Statutes at Large provide the results of legislators' work.

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