What Is Congress?
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was angry. Very angry. It was May 1856 when he stood up in the Senate. He was speaking out against a bill (a proposed law) that would let slavery spread in the United States. Northern states were very much against this.
One of the senators who wanted the bill passed was Andrew Butler. He was from South Carolina and a champion of slavery. Butler owned a plantation (a large farm) with sixty--four enslaved people working on it.
Butler was not at the Senate that day when Sumner spoke. Recently, Butler had suffered a stroke and had trouble walking and talking. So he didn’t hear Sumner call him names. Nor did he see how Sumner was imitating how he spit when he talked and shuffled when he walked.
But a second cousin of Butler’s, Preston Brooks, found out about it. He decided to strike back. Brooks was a member of Congress, too. He was in the House of Representatives.
Two days later, he and two friends crossed the marble hall from the House of Representatives to where the Senate met. Sumner sat at his desk, preparing to mail copies of his speech. Brooks crept up behind him. He was carrying a cane with a heavy gold handle.
Before Sumner knew what was happening, Brooks began bashing Sumner over his head and body. Brooks beat him so savagely that the cane broke. Blood ran down Sumner’s face. He couldn’t see to get away. Brooks and his friend were gone before help came for Sumner.
It took the Massachusetts senator three years to recover. Brooks was forced to resign from the House of Representatives, although his district voted him back into office.
Both Brooks and his cousin, Senator Butler of South Carolina, died shortly after the attack. As for Charles Sumner, he served many more years in the Senate and fought for equal rights for African Americans following the Civil War.
Over a history of almost two hundred and fifty years, there have been many fights in Congress over the laws it passes. But they have almost always been fights of words. None has ever been as bloody as what became known as “The Caning of Charles Sumner.”
Chapter 1: In the Beginning
Before there was a president or even a United States of America, there was a Congress.
The thirteen American colonies first formed a Congress in 1774 to deal with the British government’s so--called Intolerable Acts, which angered the colonists. As the situation worsened, they formed a second Congress in 1775, and then in 1776 broke away from Britain and started a war for independence. Congress became a kind of central government, a government over all the colonies. It would take care of shared needs, like paying an army to fight the war. But Congress was kept weak on purpose. The idea was to avoid anyone becoming like a king, drunk with power.
After the war, the new United States of America created a weak government. Each of the colonies was like its own little country, with its own money and leaders. The government was successful in dealing with some problems, but by 1786 it was clear that the country needed a stronger central or “federal” government with laws that all the states had to obey.
Still, many people hated the idea of their state giving up any power. So men from each state met in Philadelphia in 1787 to figure out how the new government would work. They met in total secrecy.
Finally, and only after a lot of arguing, a written Constitution was approved. It set up a government with three branches: the legislative (Congress), the executive (the president), and the judicial (the courts). Power would be spread equally among the three branches.
Congress was the most important because it represented the people. It was set up to pass new laws.
To be fair to both large and small states, Congress was designed with two chambers. In the US Senate, there would be two members from each state, no matter its size. Members would be elected by their state governments to serve six--year terms. However, in the US House of Representatives, the number of members from each state would be based on its population. And members would be elected every two years.
Like a cup of tea, the Senate with its longer terms was supposed to be a “cooling saucer” for the hot tea that sometimes poured out of the House, where there was more turnover.
It is not a perfect system. Like the country it represents, the US Congress has not always been a cozy tea party. However, democracy has survived for more than 230 years. Other countries have tried to set up a similar government but none has lasted as long as ours.
Chapter 2: Capital vs. Capitol
Originally, the men who wrote the Constitution could not even agree where the Congress should meet. The northern states wanted New York City or Philadelphia, while the southern states wanted the center of government to be in their region. Finally, in a compromise, a brand--new city was built: Washington, DC. It was then in the middle of the new country. It would be the capital (capital with an A
) of the whole country. And that’s where the Congress still meets, in a huge, domed building called the Capitol (with an O
The majestic building faces the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. It is designed to resemble buildings from ancient Greece and Rome where democracy first flourished.
The Capitol was built in stages and rebuilt several times. Its famous dome wasn’t completed until 1863. In a photo of President Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration, the iron skeleton of the dome can be seen.
Below the dome is the Capitol rotunda, a central circular area. Before burial, the bodies of some of the most famous leaders of the United States have lain in state in the rotunda so citizens could come and pay their respects. Two floors below the rotunda there is an empty tomb. It was designed to hold George Washington’s coffin. But it’s empty because Washington preferred to be buried at his home in Virginia.
The rotunda connects the southern part of the building, where the House of Representatives meets, with the northern side, which houses the Senate. Above those chambers are galleries for visitors. Visitors are often surprised by how small the Senate chamber is and how close the wooden desks are to each other. In both the chambers for the House and for the Senate, the desks are arranged in a semicircle, divided by political party.
There are some interesting customs and traditions in Congress. In the Senate, for instance, the senator who sits closest to the door has “the candy desk.” That senator must keep a drawer full of candy for hungry senators to grab as they come in and out of the chamber. The Senate also has a fancy dining room, where a special bean soup is served every day.
Some of the customs seem very old--fashioned. Senators cannot address each other by name but must refer to each other as “The Gentleman from Virginia,” or “The Gentlelady from Maine.” Hats are not allowed in the House, and women senators who wear pants must also wear jackets. House members are also forbidden to spit when someone is giving a speech they don’t like!
While important debates and votes take place in the chambers, most of the Congress members’ work gets done in office buildings that flank the Capitol. The members of Congress who have served the longest get the best offices, those nearest the Capitol.
What do some members of Congress consider the best office perk of all?
Everyone is allowed to bring dogs to their office.
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