previous next

Congress, National

March 4, 1789, was appointed as the time, and the City Hall in New York, renovated and called “Federal Hall,” was designated as the place, for the meeting of the First Congress under the new Constitution. There was great tardiness in assembling. Only eight Senators and thirteen Representatives appeared on the appointed day. On March 11 a circular letter was sent to the absentees, urging their prompt attendance; but it was the 30th before a quorum (thirty members) of the House was present. Frederick A. Muhlenberg, of Pennsylvania, was chosen speaker of the House, and John Langdon, of New Hampshire, was made (April 6) president of the Senate, “for the sole purpose of opening and counting the votes for President and Vice-President of the United States.” Washington was chosen President by a unanimous vote (sixty-nine), and John Adams was elected Vice-President by a majority. He journeyed to New York when notified of his election, and was inaugurated April 21, 1789. Washington was inaugurated April 30.

The pay of members of Congress (House of Representatives) had been $6 a day until 1814, when, on account of the increased expense of living, they fixed it at an annual salary of $1,500, without regard to the length of the session. At the same time bills were introduced to increase the salaries of foreign ministers, but these failed to pass. This act of the members of Congress in voting themselves a higher salary produced great excitement throughout the country. It opposed the popular doctrine that all public officers and servants should be kept on short allowance; and so indignant were the frugal people that at the next election many of the offending Congressmen lost their election. Even the popular Henry Clay was driven to a close canvass. The act was repealed.

The meeting of the Thirty-sixth Congress, in its last session (December, 1860), was looked forward to with deep anxiety by all Americans. The annual message of President Buchanan disappointed the people. It was so timid and indecisive that the friends and foes of the Union spoke lightly of it. Senator Jefferson Davis spoke of it as having “the characteristics of a diplomatic paper, for diplomacy is said to abhor certainty, as nature abhors a vacuum, and it is not in the power of man to reach any conclusion from that message.” Senator Hale, of New Hampshire, said that if he understood the message on the subject of secession, it was this: “South Carolina has just cause for seceding from the Union; that is the first proposition. The second is that she has no right to secede. The third is that we have no right to prevent her from seceding. He goes on to represent that this is a great and powerful country, and that a State has no right to secede from it; but the power of the country, if I understand the President, consists in what Dickens makes the English constitution to be —a power to do nothing at all. . . . He has failed to look the thing in the face. He has acted like the ostrich, which hides her head, and thereby thinks to avoid danger.” With no finger-post to guide them to definite action, Congress opened the business of the session. The Attorney-General (Black, of Pennsylvania) had infused into the message the only portion that pleased the extreme Southern wing—namely, the assertion that the national government possessed no power to coerce a State into submission in case of rebellion. Patriotic men had watched with intense interest for a few weeks the gathering storm, and instinctively drew the marked line of distinction between Jackson and Buchanan under similar circumstances. See Buchanan, James.

In the House of Representatives open declarations of disunion sentiments were made at the beginning. In the Senate, also, Senator Clingman boldly avowed the intention of the slave-labor States to revolt. “I tell those gentlemen [his political opponents] in perfect frankness that, in my judgment, not only will a number of States secede in the next sixty days, but some of the other States are holding on merely to see if proper guarantees can be obtained. We have in North Carolina only two considerable partiesthe absolute submissionists are too small to be called a party.” After demanding “guarantees” and “concessions,” he broadly intimated that no concessions would satisfy the South; that a [321] dissolution of the Union was at hand. He was opposed to free debate on the subject, and said that a Senator from Texas had told him that a good many free debaters “were hanging up by the trees in that country.” The venerable Senator Crittenden, of Kentucky, arose and rebuked Clingman, and said: “I rise here to express the hope, and that alone, that the bad example of the gentleman will not be followed.” He also expressed the hope that there was not a Senator present who was not willing to yield and compromise much for the sake of the government and the Union. Mr. Crittenden's mild rebuke and earnest appeal to the patriotism of the Senate were met by more scornful words from other Senators, in which the speakers seemed to emulate each other in the utterance of seditious words. Senator Hale replied with stinging words to Clingman's remarks, which aroused the anger of the Southern members. He had said, “The plain, true way is to look this thing in the face—see where we are.” The extremists thought so too, and cast off all disguise, especially Senator Iveson, of Georgia, and Wigfall, of Texas. The former answered that the slave-labor States intended to revolt. “We intend to go out of this Union,” he said. “I speak what I believe, that, before the 4th of March, five of the Southern States will have declared their independence.” He referred to the patriotic governor of Texas (Houston) as a hinderance to the secession of that State, and expressed a hope that “some Texan Brutus will arise to rid his country of the hoary-headed incubus that stands between the people and their sovereign will.” He said that in the next twelve months there would be a confederacy of Southern States, with a government in operation, of “the greatest prosperity and power that the world has ever seen.” He declared that if war should ensue the South would “welcome” the North “with bloody hands to hospitable graves.” Wigfall uttered similar sentiments in a coarser manner, declaring that cotton was king. “You dare not make war on cotton,” he exclaimed; “no power on earth dare make war on cotton.” He said South Carolina was about to secede, and that she would send a minister plenipotentiary to the United States, and when his credentials should be denied she would “assert the sovereignty of her soil, and it will be maintained at the point of the bayonet.”

In the House of Representatives the Southern members were equally bold. When Mr. Boteler, of Virginia, proposed by resolution to refer so much of the President's message as related to the great question before the House to a committee of one from each State (thirty-three), the members from the slave-labor States refused to vote. “I do not vote,” said Singleton, of Mississippi, “because I have not been sent here to make any compromise or patch up existing difficulties. The subject will be decided by a convention of the people of my State.” They all virtually avowed their determination to thwart all legislation in the direction of compromise or conciliation. The motion for the committee of thirty-three was adopted, and it became the recipient of a large number of suggestions, resolutions, and propositions offered in the House for amendments to the Constitution, most of them looking to concessions to the demands of the slave interest. There was such an earnest desire for peace that the people of the free-labor States were ready to make all reasonable sacrifices for its sake.

In the Senate a committee of thirteen was appointed to consider the condition of the country and report some plan, by amendments to the Constitution or otherwise, for its pacification. Senator Crittenden offered a series of amendments and joint resolutions. These did not meet with favor on either side. On receiving news of the passage of the ordinance of secession by South Carolina, her two remaining Representatives (Boyce and Ashmun) left the House of Representatives and returned home. Early in January the proceedings of a secret caucus of Southern members of Congress was revealed, which showed that they should remain in Congress until its close to prevent means being adopted by the government for its own security, and that the movements in the South were principally directed by secession members in Congress. These revelations astonished and alarmed the people, for the President, in a message on Jan. 8, 1861, had uttered a sort of [322] cry of despair. The Southerners in Congress became more and more bold and defiant, Senator Toombs, of Georgia, declared himself “a rebel.” The two great committees labored in vain. Towards the middle of January, Hunter, of Virginia, and Seward, of New York, in able speeches, foreshadowed the determination of the Secession party and the Unionists. During January the extreme Southern members of Congress began to withdraw, and early in February, 1861, the national Congress had heard the last unfriendly word spoken, for the Secession party had left. Thenceforward, to the end of the session (March 4, 1861), Union men were left free to act in Congress in the preparation of measures for the salvation of the republic. The proceedings of the Thirty-Sixth Congress had revealed to the country its great peril, and action was taken accordingly.

On Thursday, July 4, 1861, the Thirty-Seventh Congress assembled in extraordinary session, in compliance with the call of President Lincoln, April 15. In the Senate twenty-three States, and in the House of Representatives twenty-two States and one Territory were represented. There were 40 Senators and 154 Representatives. Ten States, in which the political leaders had adopted ordinances of secession, were not represented. In both Houses there was a large majority of Unionists. It was the first session of this Congress, and Galusha A. Grow, of Pennsylvania, was chosen speaker of the House. The President, in his message, confined his remarks to the special object for which the Congress had been called together. He recited the many and grave offences of the conspirators against the life of the nation, such as the seizure of public property, making preparations for war, and seeking the recognition of foreign powers as an independent nation. In the act of firing on Fort Sumter, “discarding all else,” he said, “they have forced upon the country the distinct issue, ‘immediate dissolution or blood.’ ” He reviewed the conduct of the Virginia politicians, condemned the policy of armed neutrality proposed in some of the border States, alluded to the call for soldiers, and the necessity of vindicating the power of the national government. “It is now recommended,” he said, “that you give the legal means for making the contest a short and decisive one; that you place at the control of the government for the work at least 400,000 men and $400,000,000. . . . A right result at this time will be worth more to the world than ten times the men and ten times the money. . . . The people will save the government if the government itself will do its part only indifferently well.” He alluded to the preponderance of Union sentiment among the people in the South, and stated the remarkable fact that, while large numbers of officers of the army and navy had proved themselves unfaithful, “not one common soldier or sailor is known to have deserted his flag. . . . This is the patriotic instinct of plain people. They understand, without an argument, that the destroying of the government which was made by Washington means no good to them.” The President assured the people that the sole object of the exercise of war-power should be the maintenance of the national authority and the salvation of the life of the republic. After expressing a hope that the views of Congress were coincident with his own, the President said, “Having chosen our course without guile and with pure motives, let us renew our trust in God and go forward without fear and with manly hearts.” There were important reports from the departments accompanying the President's message. The Secretary of War (Mr. Cameron) recommended the enlistment of men for three years, with a bounty of $100, for the additional regiments of the regular army: also, that appropriations be made for the construction, equipment, and current expenses of railways and telegraphs for the use of the government; for the furnishing of a more liberal supply of approved arms for the militia, and an increase in the clerical force of his department. The Secretary of the Treasury (Mr. Chase) asked for $240,000.000 for war expenses, and $80,000,000 to meet the ordinary demands for the fiscal year. He proposed to raise the $80.000,000, in addition to the sum of nearly $66,000,000. by levying increased duties on specified articles, and also by certain internal revenues, or by the direct taxation of real and personal property. For war purposes, he [323] proposed a national loan of not less than $100,000,000, to be issued in the form of treasury notes, bearing an annual interest of 7 3-10 per cent., or 1 cent a day on $50, in sums from $50 to $5,000. He proposed to issue bonds or certificates of debt, in the event of the national loan proving insufficient, to an amount not exceeding $100,000,000, to be made redeemable at the pleasure of the government after a period not exceeding thirty years, and bearing interest not exceeding 7 per cent. He also recommended the issue of another class of treasury notes, not to exceed in amount $50,000,000, bearing an interest of 3.65 per cent., and exchangeable, at the will of the holder, for treasury notes. The Secretary of the Navy asked Congress to sanction his acts, and recommended the appointment of an assistant secretary in his department.

Congress acted promptly on the suggestions of the President. It was found at the outset that there were a few members of Congress who were in thorough sympathy with the Secessionists; but while these prolonged the debates, the majority of loyal men was so overwhelming that the disloyal ones could not defeat the will of the people. On the first day of the session Senator Wilson, of Massachusetts, chairman of the military committee of the Upper House, gave notice that he should, the next day, submit six bills having for their object the suppression of the rebellion. These were all adopted afterwards. They were: 1. To ratify and confirm certain acts of the President for the suppression of insurrection and rebellion; 2. To authorize the employment of volunteers to aid in enforcing the laws and protecting public property; 3. To increase the present military establishment of the United States; 4. To provide for the better organization of the military establishment; 5. To promote the efficiency of the army; 6. For the organization of a volunteer militia force, to be called the National Guard of the United States. At an early day the Senate expelled the following ten Senators: James M. Mason and R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia; Thomas L. Clingman and Thomas Bragg, of North Carolina; James Chestnut, Jr., of South Carolina; A. O. P. Nicholson, of Tennessee; W. K. Sebastian and Charles B. Mitchell, of Arkansas; and John Hemphill and Louis T. Wigfall, of Texas. On July 13 the places of Mason and Hunter were filled by John S. Carlisle and W. J. Willey, appointed by the legislature of “reorganized (West) Virginia.” On the same day John B. Clark, of Missouri, was expelled from the House of Representatives. Every measure for the suppression of the rebellion proposed by the President and heads of departments was adopted. On the 19th the venerable J. J. Crittenden, who was then a member of the House of Representatives, offered a joint resolution, “That the present deplorable Civil War has been forced upon the country by the disunionists of the Southern States, now in revolt against the constitutional government and in arms around the capital: that in this national emergency, banishing all feelings of mere passion or resentment, we will recollect only our duty to our country; that this war is not waged, on our part, in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union, with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States, unimpaired; and that as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.” It was laid over until Monday. On Sunday (July 21) the battle of Bull Run was fought. Notwithstanding the capital was filled with fugitives from the shattered army, and it was believed by many that the seat of government was at the mercy of its enemies, Congress, with sublime faith, debated as calmly as before. By an almost unanimous vote, Mr. Crittenden's resolution was adopted, and a few days afterwards one identical with it passed the Senate by a vote almost as decisive. It was such a solemn refutation of the false charges of the Confederate leaders, that it was a war for subjugation and emancipation of the slaves, that it was not allowed to be published in the Confederacy. On the same day Congress resolved to spare nothing essential for the support of the government, and pledged “to the country and the world the employment of every resource, [324] national and individual, for the suppression, overthrow, and punishment of rebels in arms.” They passed a bill providing for the confiscation of property used for insurrectionary purposes, and that the master of a slave who should employ him in any naval or military service against the government of the United States should forfeit all right to his services thereafter. When Congress had finished the business for which it was called, and had made ample provision in men and means for the suppression of the rebellion, it adjourned (Aug. 6), after a session of thirty-three days. The product of its labors consisted in the passage of sixty-one public and seven private bills and five joint resolutions. On the day before its adjournment it requested the President to appoint a general fast-day.

The fifty-seventh Congress.

The life of this Congress extends officially from March 4, 1901, to March 4, 1903. The Senate consists of 90 members, divided politically as follows: Republicans, 53; Democrats, 29; Populists, 4; Independent Republican, 1; Silver party, 1; and Independent, 2. The House of Representatives consists of 357 members, divided politically as follows: Republicans, 198; Democrats, 151; and Populists and Silverites, 8. The ratio of representation in the House from 1893 to 1903, based on the census of 1890, was 173,901.

The practical work of the Senate is carried on by 55 standing committees, 8 select committees, 4 joint committees, and 2 joint commissions; and in the House of Representatives by 59 standing and select committees, 2 joint commissions, and 4 joint committees. The most important committees of Congress are finance in the Senate, and ways and means in the House; appropriations in each; foreign relations in the Senate, and foreign affairs in the House; banking and currency in the House, coast defences in the Senate; commerce in the Senate, and interstate and foreign commerce in the House; and immigration in both bodies.

For complete list of Senators and Representatives, see federal government.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: