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Secession, Congress, and a Civil War Awakening at the Archives

The U.S. Capitol under construction, 1860 (National Archives Identifier 530494)

As a new year begins, the 112th Congress reconvenes for a second session of legislative activity. Representatives and senators from across the country are again descending upon the Capitol, ready to commence debates, proceedings, and hearings. This is how the legislative branch of the Federal Government always functions, right? Well, not always.

On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, the 36th Congress consisted of 66 senators and 234 representatives. There was a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and every state in the Union was effectively represented.

But once South Carolina issued its ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860, a surge of southern legislators began withdrawing and retiring from Congress.

By the time the 37th Congress convened in March of 1861, six states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—had already joined South Carolina and left the Union. This prompted Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina to follow.

When the torrent of secession finally concluded, vacancies existed in both chambers of Congress. The mass exodus of southern Democrats, coupled with the commencement of Union-Confederate hostilities, shrank the Federal legislature to 50 senators and 180 representatives by the beginning of 1863.

Southern secession transformed Congress in many ways. The dozens of unfilled vacancies in the Senate and the House led to a generation of Republican majorities. Throughout the Civil War and during the ensuing era of Reconstruction, Republicans were able to legislate without obstruction, passing bills like the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act. The Democratic Party did not regain a majority in either house of Congress until winning control of the House of Representatives in 1875.

Do you want to learn more about the events of 1861 and the Civil War? The William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives will be a hosting author Adam Goodheart on January 18 at the Archives in downtown Washington, DC.  Goodheart will discuss his new book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening. For more information on this event, check out NARA’s news and events page.

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