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The United States House of Representatives is one of two chambers of the United States Congress. The House, like its Senate counterpart, was created in the United States Constitution of 1787, but its origins lie in the years before the American Revolutionary War.

The Continental Congresses

The First Continental Congress was a meeting of representatives of twelve of Great Britain's seventeen North American colonies, in the autumn of 1774. The Continental Congress sent a list of grievances to King George III. When the King failed to respond, and the American Revolutionary War began in April 1775, the Second Continental Congress was convened—this time with thirteen colonies in attendance. A year later, on 4 July 1776, the Continental Congress declared the thirteen colonies free and independent states, referring to them as the "united States of America." This was not a formal name, however, so "united" was not capitalized in the Declaration of Independence, "States" being capitalized only because all nouns were capitalized in English before the Industrial Revolution. The Second Continental Congress continued in office while the War for Independence continued, producing the Articles of Confederation— the country's first constitution— in 1777, which was ratified by all of the states by 1781.

Congress of the Confederation

Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress of the Confederation was a unicameral body in which each state was equally represented, and in which each state had a veto over most action. States could, and did, ignore what did pass. The ineffectiveness of the federal government under the Articles led Congress to summon the Convention of 1787.

Originally intended to revise the Articles of Confederation, it ended up writing a completely new constitution. All states except Rhode Islandmarker agreed to send delegates. One of the most divisive issues facing the Convention was the structure of Congress. James Madison's Virginia Plan called for a bicameral Congress; the lower house would be elected directly by the people, and the upper house would be elected by the lower house. The plan drew the support of delegates from large states such as Virginiamarker, Massachusettsmarker, and Pennsylvaniamarker, as it called for representation based on population. The smaller states, however, favored the New Jersey Plan, which called for a unicameral Congress with equal representation for the states. Eventually, a compromise, known as the Connecticut Compromise or the Great Compromise was reached; one house of Congress (the House of Representatives) would provide proportional representation, whereas the other (the Senate) would provide equal representation. To preserve further the authority of the states, the compromise proposed that state legislatures, rather than the people, would elect senators. The Constitution was ratified by the end of 1788, and its full implementation was set for March 4, 1789. The House began work on April 1, 1789, when it achieved a quorum for the first time. Frederick Muhlenberg, an American Lutheran minister and politician, was the first Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

Nineteenth century

The early nineteenth century was marked by frequent clashes between the House of Representatives and the Senate. For most of the first half of the nineteenth century, a balance between the free North and the slaveholding South existed in the Senate, as the numbers of free and slave states were equal. However, since the North was much more populous than the South, it dominated the House of Representatives. In 1825, new Speaker of the House Henry Clay also officially announced that he and his followers would separate from Andrew Jackson and form the National Republican Party.

After the Civil War, the Gilded Age was marked by close balances in the House, with the parties alternating control.

Twentieth and twenty-first centuries

House of Representatives 1900-48
The early 20th century witnessed the rise of party leadership in both houses of Congress. In the House of Representatives, the office of Speaker became extremely powerful, reaching its zenith under the Republican Joseph Gurney Cannon. In particular, committee chairmen remained particularly strong in both houses until the rules reforms of the 1970s.

After the beginning of the Great Depression and the New Deal, the Democrats controlled the House from 1931 to 1994, with two exceptions (1946 and 1952), as the New Deal Coalition was successful. In terms of legislation, however, the Conservative coalition usually blocked liberal legislative proposals, except in 1964-65 when President Lyndon Johnson had the majorities to pass his Great Society proposals. The most important leader was long-time Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn. The Republicans under Newt Gingrich returned to a majority in the election of 1994, as part of the Republican Revolution that gave the party both houses and a majority of governorships that year.

The Democrats gained 30 seats in the 2006 elections, regaining control and electing Nancy Pelosi as the first female Speaker.

Number of Representatives

Size of House of Representatives 1789-2009
has the power to regulate the size of the House of Representatives, and the size of the House has varied through the years in response to the admission of new states, reapportionment following a census, and the Civil War.

Year 1789 1791 1793 1803 1813 1815 1817 1819 1821 1833 1835 1843 1845 1847 1851 1853 1857
Representatives 65 69 105 141 182 183 185 187 213 240 242 223 225 227 233 234 237

Year 1861 1863 1865 1867 1869 1873 1883 1889 1891 1893 1901 1911 1913 1959 1961 1963
Representatives 178 183 191 193 243 293 325 330 333 357 386 391 435 436 437 435

By the 2000s, the U.S. population had more than tripled since the 1911 expansion of the House to its current 435 seats; accordingly, proposals began to be made by commentators such as George F. Will, Robert Novak, and Paul Jacob to further increase the size of the House. For instance, the Wyoming Rule calls for adding enough members to Congress to reduce the population of the average Congressional district to the population of the least populous state's district (i.e. Wyoming's) for a total House size of 569.


  3. America has outgrown the House of Representatives, Matthew Cossolotto, November 21, 2001.
  • American National Biography (1999), contains biographies of all politicians no longer alive.
  • Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics 1976: The Senators, the Representatives and the Governors: Their Records and Election Results, Their States and Districts (1975).
  • Davidson, Roger H., and Walter J. Oleszek, eds. (1998). Congress and Its Members, 6th ed. Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly. (Legislative procedure, informal practices, and member information)
  • Roger H. Davidson, Susan Webb Hammond, Raymond W. Smock, eds; Masters of the House: Congressional Leadership over Two Centuries Westview Press, 1998 online edition
  • George B. Galloway; History of the House of Representatives 1962
  • Hunt, Richard. (1998). "Using the Records of Congress in the Classroom," OAH Magazine of History, 12 (Summer): 34–37.
  • MacNeil, Neil. Forge of Democracy: The House of Representatives (1963) popular history by a journalist
  • Robert V. Remini. The House: The History of the House of Representatives (2006) standard scholarly history
  • Ritchie, Donald A. (1997). "What Makes a Successful Congressional Investigation." OAH Magazine of History, 11 (Spring): 6–8.
  • Wilson, Woodrow. (1885). Congressional Government.
  • Julian E. Zelizer. On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000 (2004)
  • Julian E. Zelizer. ed. The American Congress: The Building of Democracy (2004), essays by leading scholars

See also

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