Politics and Military

Congress in 1800: Tumult, Anger and an Unfinished Capitol

For the first time ever, New England’s 49 representatives met in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 17, 1800, in an unfinished Capitol building.

They had met before in Philadelphia, which many of the New Englanders undoubtedly preferred because of the distance.

The unfinished Capitol ca. 1800, by William Russell Birch

It was a tumultuous time to be a member of Congress. By November 1800, the Federalist Party had been losing elected members of Congress to electoral defeat for months. President John Adams, a Federalist, fought bitterly with his vice president and former friend Thomas Jefferson for reelection.

The Unfinished Capitol

The Capitol wasn’t even close to finished. Completion of the House wing was 11 years away, and only the Senate wing was finished — setting a precedent of privilege enjoyed by the upper chamber to the consternation of the lower.

The reason for the premature move to the Capitol was political, as is usual in Washington. Adams feared he would lose re-election. He was unpopular for signing the Alien and Sedition Acts, which curbed freedom of the press, for avoiding war with France and for imposing federal taxes. He hoped to pick up Southern votes by quickly moving the entire federal government to the southern city. It didn’t work. He would lose to Jefferson after a nasty campaign.

Frenemies Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

It wasn’t quite that simple, though. The presidential election was held from Oct. 31, 1800 to Dec. 3, 1800. Jefferson received the same number of votes as Aaron Burr, so the election went to the outgoing House of Representatives. Alexander Hamilton’s influence would ultimately prevail and make Jefferson the winner. Hamilton would pay for that victory. It deepened Burr’s hatred of him, which led to the 1804 duel in which Burr killed Hamilton and his own political career.

Back then each state held elections to the House of Representatives on a different day. New York, for example, elected its representative from the 10th district in May. Connecticut held its election in September. New Jersey wouldn’t hold its election until December.

And senators were picked by state legislatures. By November 17, though, Adams’ unpopularity was clearly costing the Federalist Party its majority in Congress.  Ultimately the Federalists would lose 22 seats in the House and six in the Senate. Massachusetts’ Theodore Sedgwick, now in the minority party, would no longer serve as Speaker of the House.

mary-gray-bidwell-sedgwick

Theodore Sedgwick

End of the Federalists

The 1800 election marked the beginning of the end for the Federalist Party. It was also the dusk of an era when New England had enormous influence on the federal government. It wasn’t that Adams and Sedgwick would lose power; New England would send five more presidents to Washington (six if you count George H.W. Bush) and nine more House speakers. In the next 20 years, seven more states would join the union, none from New England. And then another 38 would join without any from the Northeast.

In 1800, New England sent 12 senators and 39 representatives to Washington, or 46 percent of Congress. Today, New England sends 12 senators and 33 representatives, about 8 percent of the entire body.

The Federalists saw that coming. They resented the Jeffersonian ascension to power and the decline of their own. They wanted a strong central government and – let’s be honest – they were elitist. Take Connecticut’s congressional delegation, for example. All nine members attended Yale.

Animosity in the Unfinished Capitol

The animosity between the two parties wasn’t limited to Adams and Jefferson. Two years earlier, Matthew Lyon, a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont, spat in Federalist Rep. Roger Griswold’s face after Griswold called him a scoundrel. Griswold, from Connecticut, later beat Lyon with a cane.

In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase and the growth of the Jeffersonian Democrats inspired Griswold and several other New England Federalists to propose seceding from the union.

Cartoon showing Roger Griswold beating Matthew Lyon.

Then in 1814, the British burned the Capitol shortly after the two wings had been finished. They also torched the White House and several other landmarks. Torrential rain prevented the fire from completely destroying the building, though the loss amounted to nearly $800,000. The blaze consumed 3,000 volumes from the Library of Congress, then housed in the Capitol.

The Capitol in 1814 after the British burned Washington, by George Munger.

Military engineers rebuilt the building, adding a low dome designed by Charles Bulfinch. Construction continued until 1826. Then by 1850 the admission of new states meant more representatives and not enough room, and the Capitol underwent a major expansion.

This story last updated in 2022.

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