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Ken Burns' America: the Congress (1988)

By Edited Apr 20, 2016 0 0

Historian David McCullough is the narrator of this splendid piece on the Congress of the United States. He has the help throughout of interjections by Cokie Roberts, Charles McDowell, David Broder and Alistair Cooke, all experts in their field and in their knowledge of Congress.

  

US Capitol
 

                                                                           U. S. Capitol

Congress is the Legislative branch of government consisting of 100 Senators, two from each State, and 435 members in the House of Representatives. The Capitol building, the most recognizable building in America, houses Congress and is situated one mile east of the Potomac River on what was once called Jenkins Heights. Over 10,000 men and women have served here; among them are Davy Crocket, Joseph Pulitzer, Horace Greeley, Isidor Strauss, the founder of Macy's and Emily Dickinson's father. Lesser known members are farmers and housewives, schoolteachers and playwrights, astronauts and basketball stars, ex-slaves and priests, convicted felons and lawyers. Twenty-three members of Congress have become Presidents.

David Mccullough tells us that there was no structure to Congress when our Founding Fathers first met. They invented the Congress that we have today. In 1789, the first session of Congress took place under the New Constitution. Only 21 members showed up. They quickly adjourned without a quorum. When they finally assembled, they addressed themselves to ten amendments to the Constitution called the Bill of Rights. They created the new Departments of State, Treasury and War. They issued President George Washington a salary of $25,000.

After a year in New York and ten years in Philadelphia, Congress found a permanent home in the city of Washington. Although the building was incomplete, Congress held its first session in Washington in November of 1800.

Early on, they appropriated $15 million dollars for the purchase of Louisiana which was finalized in 1803 when Thomas Jefferson was President. They also set aside $2500 for Lewis and Clark to explore the region which they did, from 1804 to 1806.

In 1811, Henry Clay was elected Speaker of the House. He was 35 years old and a natural leader. He was also a war hawk. In 1812, the United States declared war for the first time. Two years later, the British came in and burned the Capitol. In 1820, Henry Clay engineered the Missouri Compromise by which the state of Maine was admitted as a free state and Missouri was admitted as a slave state. This was a time of great oratory in Congress when we heard the eloquent speeches of Sam Houston, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster.

The year that Lincoln was elected President, 1860, was the year that South Carolina seceded from the Union. War came on April 12, 1861 and a Congress of Confederate States was born in Montgomery, Alabama.

                                                          

David McCullough
                        

                                                          Historian David McCullough

McCullough relates much of the corruption that reigned in the Congress in the ensuing years. Names like James Blaine of Maine, Leland Stanford of California, Roscoe Conkling of New York and Speaker Thomas Bracket Reed of Maine fought against the corruption of the day. When Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines became territories of the United States, Thomas Reed resigned, citing his anger for the Imperialism that was creeping in.

In 1917, Congress declared war against Germany. Jeanette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to serve in Congress, voted against the war along with a few others. Again, in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Congress had to make a fateful decision once again whether or not to go to war, Jeanette Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote No on the war.

Charles McDowell, an 18-year veteran of PBS' Washington Week in Review states that the Capitol is a political cathedral as well as a small town. It has its own bank, post office, subway, carpentry shop, upholsterer, resident physician, daily newspaper, restaurants, police force, resident architect as well as 44 doorkeepers and hundreds of clerks. It is a world within a world.

David Broder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, commented on the debates on Civil Rights which took place in the 1960's. He calls it the highest drama ever seen in Congress. These people, he stated, knew they had a place in history of righting an historic wrong.

Congress was created to represent the will of the people. We must accept them, warts and all. Charles McDowell ends the documentary with the words "The Republic has a future because the Congress is there."

                                                       

Ken Burns
                     

                                                                              Ken Burns

Ken Burns' view of Congress is necessarily a hodge-podge of the humans that peopled the building and of the building itself. The several narrators along with McCullough all have their differing views of what to discuss when we use the term Congress. It is therefore sometimes difficult to follow. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable history lesson which should be assigned to all seniors in high school.

The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction
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