The US Congress for Kids
Over 200 Years of Lawmaking, Deal-Breaking, and Compromising
By Ronald A. Reis
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2014 Ronald A. Reis
All rights reserved.
Congress and Slavery
Preston Brooks, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina, was determined to choose his weapon carefully. After some consideration, the 36-year-old congressman settled upon a dog cane, a light instrument used to discipline unruly canines. But Brooks planned to take the stick to a human being who, in his anger, he felt to be lower than any animal on Earth.
On the morning of May 21, 1856, Brooks arrived at the nation's capital, Washington. Carrying his gold-headed dog stick, the young congressman sought a 45-year-old senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner. He could not locate him.
The following day, Brooks entered the Capitol Building and walked into the Senate chamber. There, Sumner sat at his desk, signing envelopes containing copies of his "The Crime Against Kansas" speech that he had delivered over a two-day period, on May 19 and 20. Brooks calmly walked to Sumner's desk.
"You have libeled my state and slandered my relation, who is aged and absent," Brooks declared. "I feel it to be my duty to punish you."
The beating Senator Sumner took from Brooks would leave him permanently injured. As a result, the senator spent an astonishing three years away from the Congress he loved, recuperating. Nonetheless, Charles Sumner eventually returned to the Senate, where he served for another 18 years.
Why did this beastly act occur? Why did a member of the House of Representatives attack a US senator with the intent to cripple if not kill him?
In his "The Crime Against Kansas" speech, Sumner, an antislavery Republican, had torn into two proslavery advocates, one of whom was Senator Andrew Butler from South Carolina. "Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him," Sumner declared on the Senate floor. "Though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste [pure] in his sight. I mean the harlot [prostitute] slavery."
It so happened that Andrew Butler was the uncle of Preston Brooks. The elderly Butler was not present during Sumner's speech, having earlier suffered a stroke. He lay recuperating in South Carolina.
In attendance, however, was Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, also the subject of criticism during Sumner's speech. Douglas had leaned over to a colleague and whispered, "This damn fool [Sumner] is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool."
The national reaction to the beating of Senator Sumner broke along regional lines. In the South, Brooks was hailed as a hero for upholding the honor of his family and the South as a whole. The congressman was sent dozens of new canes, one of them inscribed with the words "Good Job."
Though Brooks was censured (condemned) by the House of Representatives and, as a result, resigned, he was immediately reelected. The congressman died soon thereafter, however, from a liver ailment, in January 1857. Preston Brooks was 37 years old.
The breakdown of reasoned debate that the beating of Senator Sumner symbolized continued. In four years the country would plunge into civil war over the issue of slavery.
A Short-Lived Victory
During the battle for independence, in mid-1776, the 13 British colonies, through their Continental Congress, drafted the Articles of Confederation. The Articles proved to be a weak form of government. They provided for no executive, no judiciary, and a virtually powerless Congress. Six years after the war ended, in 1787, a convention was called to revise the Articles of Confederation. It was soon realized, however, that a whole new form of government was required. It was at this Philadelphia Convention, over a four-month period, that a new Constitution was drafted. On March 4, 1789, the new government, formed by the recently (1788) ratified (formally approved) Constitution, would be installed.
The US Constitution included a curious provision on the abolition (elimination) of the slave trade. The stipulation, in Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution, prevented any interference in such trade before the year 1808:
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
The South, consisting of slaveholding states, was elated. General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, of South Carolina, bragged that the "South had won a great victory" in protecting the slave trade for at least 20 years.
Furthermore, Pinckney and other members of Congress realized that the clause did not require an end to the slave trade in 1808. To actually terminate the trade would require passing a bill in both chambers of Congress, the House and the Senate. It would then need to be signed by the president.
On March 2, 1807, the US Congress did exercise its constitutional power to halt the international slave trade. President Thomas Jefferson promptly signed the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves, making it law. The Constitution, however, required that the effective date be delayed until January 1, 1808.
It must be pointed out that this act did not end slavery in the United States. The widespread trade of slaves within the South was not prohibited. The Southern states went along with the elimination of the international slave trade in part because by 1808 they had a self-sustaining population of over four million captives. With the children of slaves automatically becoming slaves themselves, the South was assured of a never-ending secure supply of human property.
Though slavery in the United States was to continue in the decades to come, the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves was a milestone. According to historian William Freechling, the act to end the slave trade was "probably the most important slavery legislation Congress ever passed and among the most important American laws on any subject."
The Congressional Gag Rule
On December 20, 1837, William Slade, a congressman from the northern state of Vermont, rose in the House of Representatives to give a speech on the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. In doing so, the congressman certainly had no desire to offend. Yet in speaking on the subject of slavery, on the floor of Congress, Slade had violated a new House of Representatives rule maintaining that a discussion about slavery and abolition was too quarrelsome for debate. In raising the issue, Slade drove Southerners right out of the hall.
In early March of the previous year, John C. Calhoun, the fiery, unyielding senator from South Carolina, had warned Congress against interfering in any way with the South's system of slave labor, its "peculiar institution." "The relations which now exist between the two races," he said, "has existed for two centuries. It has grown with our growth and strengthened with our strength. It has entered into and modified all our institutions, civil and political. We will not, can not, permit it to be destroyed."
Nearly 58 years earlier, when the government was being created in 1790, another South Carolinian, William Smith, had put the issue more directly. "We took each other, with our mutual bad habits and respective evils," he reminded his colleagues, "for better, for worse; the Northern States adopted us with our slaves, and we adopted them with their Quakers." As far as Smith and other Southerners were concerned, discussion of slavery was, in today's jargon, "a nonstarter."
Yet by the mid-1830s, petitions from northern abolitionists began pouring into Congress — by the thousands. Many of these petitioners agreed that Congress had no power to abolish slavery in the states where it then existed without a constitutional amendment. However, reasoned the petitioners, since Congress created the District of Columbia (DC) (the seat of the federal government sandwiched between the two slave states of Maryland and Virginia) and had exclusive jurisdiction over its affairs, Congress could outlaw slavery within.
Congressman Slade agreed. "What do the petitioners ask at our hands?" he intoned in that December 27 speech to his fellow representatives. "Why, sir, simply that measures may be taken to put an end to slavery here, and especially that here, where the flag of freedom floats over the Capitol of this great Republic, and where the authority of that Republic is supreme, the trade in human flesh may be abolished. These are the questions which gentleman are called on to meet, but which they do not meet, either by calling the petitioners 'ignorant fanatics' or denouncing them as 'murderers and incendiaries [burners of property].'"
Southerners would have none of it! To them, for Congress to even raise the issue was unacceptable.
Nonetheless, to petition Congress was a basic right of citizenship, written into the US Constitution. To deny citizens the right to be heard was a violation of their civil liberties.
In response to the flood of petitions, proslavery forces in Congress passed a series of "gag rules" that automatically "tabled" all such petitions. In doing so, the petitions would never be read or discussed.
The gag rules angered Americans from northern states. Massachusetts congressman John Quincy Adams declared that they violated the First Amendment right "to petition the Government for redress of grievances." Petitions from the North, demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, dramatically increased. The issue of slavery and its abolition would not go away.
It wasn't that Congress was unwilling to compromise over slavery. Indeed, three major compromises, each 30 years apart, attempted to pacify pro- and antislavery regions of the country.
The first, known as the Compromise of 1790, involved founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. In June 1790, the three met for dinner and worked out a deal that Congress would later approve. The capital of the United States would be moved from Philadelphia to the Potomac, to become Washington, DC. In exchange, the federal government would assume debts acquired by the states during the Revolutionary War. The South liked the compromise because it put the nation's capital between two slave states — Maryland and Virginia.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820, brokered to a large extent by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, was an effort by both chambers of Congress to maintain a balance between slave-holding states and free states. With new western territories becoming states, it was agreed that some would be free and others slave. Though the Missouri Compromise may have temporarily eased arguments over the question of slavery, it served notice that the South not only had no intention of ending slavery, it wanted to expand it — westward.
The Compromise of 1850, where Henry Clay again played a decisive role, also dealt with slavery in the new territories. It was another balancing act. Among other features, in exchange for abolishing the slave trade (though not slavery itself) in Washington, DC, the South got a stronger Fugitive Slave Act. The latter required the North to return runaway slaves.
Though congressional compromises held off disunion for a while, they did not succeed in preventing the inevitable — the breakup of the United States through civil war.
The decade of the 1850s saw both regions of the country, North and South, becoming more isolated from one another, suspicious of each other's motives, and vengeful toward those who represented each region's interests. Congress, as would be expected, was home to all the anger and hatred on a personal level that such distrust generated.
With the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States in November 1860, it took only a month for South Carolina to secede from the Union. Other southern states soon followed. On April 12, 1867, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, a federal installation in South Carolina. The Civil War had begun.
One year later, on April 16, 1861, in the midst of the ongoing struggle, Congress voted, without Southern participation, to eliminate slavery in the District of Columbia. Unfinished business finally finished.
CAPITOL AND CAPITAL
Congress Comes of Age
It was like the first day of school. On January 3, 2013, a bright, sky blue afternoon, remarkably warm for a winter in the US capital, Washington, DC, the first-year class of the 113th Congress stood for their group photograph. Gathered on the steps of the Capitol Building, 82 new House members and 12 new senators beamed as the congressional photographer snapped away to record the historic event. And momentous it was, for the 113th Congress would be the most diverse in congressional history.
Of the new group, ready to serve as the people's delegates, 24 were women; four, African American; five, Asian American; and 10, Latino. There was Representative Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat from Hawaii), the first Hindu to serve in Congress. Mazie Hirono (Democrat from Hawaii) would be the first Buddhist senator. Representative Kyrsten Sinema (Democrat from Arizona) was the first openly bisexual congresswoman. Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin is the first declared gay politician elected to the US Senate. With the 113th Congress, white males no longer made up the majority of House Democrats.
The average age of the newcomers copied the Congress as a whole. In the House, the freshmen class averaged 58 years old. In the Senate, it was slightly higher, at 61. Of note, Tammy Duckworth would begin her term as a Democratic representative from Illinois. A double-amputee veteran of the Iraq War, she is, not surprisingly, a strong advocate for equal rights for military women.
Alan Lowenthal, a House Democrat from California, was born in 1941. When asked about his game plan, he responded, "Job creation and renewable energy." Harry Hamburg, a new senator from Maine, is an independent, born in 1944, with bipartisanship (cooperation between political parties) being his aim. Ann Wagner, a House Republican from Montana, was born in 1962. Economic growth is her biggest concern. House member Brad Wenstrup, a Republican from Ohio, born in 1958, hopes to make health care a central focus. Deb Fisher, a new Republican senator from Nebraska, born in 1951, wants to reduce the size of the federal government. And Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, born in 1949, hopes to rebuild the middle class.
While most members of the freshmen class had at least visited Washington, DC, before being elected, they were no doubt given the grand tour of both the capitol and the capital, once the photographic session was over. It is also certain that the new representatives and senators were awed by what they saw.
The US Capitol Building, the home of Congress, the legislative branch of the federal government, stands on what was formerly known as Jenkins Hill, a plateau rising 88 feet above the nearby Potomac River. Now known as Capitol Hill, the area was named after the Capitoline Hill of the ancient Roman Republic.
The Capitol itself has undergone many modifications and expansions since its construction began in 1800. Today, the centerpiece under the massive dome erected during the Civil War (1860–1865) is the great Rotunda. In 1865, the Italian painter Constantino Brumidi, the "Michelangelo of the Capitol," painted a huge fresco under the dome. Depicting the Apotheosis [glorification] of George Washington, it is 180 feet above the Rotunda floor.
North of the Rotunda, on the second floor of the Capitol Building, is the Senate chamber, where 100 US senators preside. South of the Rotunda, also on the second floor, is the House chamber, large enough to accommodate the 435 members of the House of Representatives. Surrounding the Capitol Building, but still part of what is called Capitol Hill, are structures to accommodate the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, as well as huge office buildings for members of Congress and their staff. The freshman members of Congress must have been impressed and humbled by what they experienced.
Congressional Cup and Saucer
All governments, from dictatorships to democracies, are required to carry out three main functions. They must make laws, execute laws, and judge, or interpret, the laws. The United States, being a democracy, chose to structure its government into three separate branches, which, while working together and at the same time checking each other, conduct the above functions. There would be a legislative branch to make the laws, an executive branch to carry out the laws, and a judicial branch to interpret the laws. (Continues...)
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