Historical Footnotes

'Treasures of Congress' exhibit celebrates Congress' move to Washington 200 years ago and offers glimpses of the inside workings of this most august body.

February 15, 2000

Sex has flummoxed Congress for many of its 200 years in Washington.

But when Rep. Howard W. Smith, a Virginia Democrat, inserted sex into the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he may have set a record for cluelessness.

An ardent segregationist and accomplished political reactionary, Smith was chairman of the House Rules Committee when that post was a pillar of Washington power. He inserted a "killer" amendment into the civil rights bill by adding "sex" to the categories -- such as race, color, national origin and religion -- that would be banned from consideration in employment.

He thought the mostly male congress would find the proposition so ridiculous they'd reject the bill out of hand. To his amazement, it passed the House of Representative 290 to 130.

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, liked the idea so much she insisted it stay in the Senate version.

And so the 1964 Civil Rights Act serendipitously became a major milestone on the march to equality of opportunity for women in America. And women have been among its major beneficiaries.

"It's a great example of unintended consequences," says Bruce Bustard, the historian who is curator of the "Treasures of Congress" exhibit now at the National Archives in Washington.

The "engrossing copy" of the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- the final copy that goes to the printer -- is displayed in the show with the Smith amendments pasted in like valentines in a scrapbook. A tally of the vote is included in the display with names lined out in blue for "ayes" and red for "nays."

The "Treasures" exhibit celebrates the 200th anniversary of the move of Congress to Washington and offers enlightening, startling and sometimes amusing glimpses of the inside working of this most august body.

Congress first covened under the Constitution of the United States on March 4, 1789, in New York City, then met 10 years in Philadelphia before decamping to Washington, recently reclaimed from tobacco fields, cow pastures and marshland.

Among the "Treasures" is a letter in which the "Inhabitants of the District of Columbia" congratulate the Congressmen on their move and apologize for "temporary inconveniences and privations to which you may be exposed ..."

The perils of the half-built city included "muddy streets, crowded lodgings and hogs rooting in the rubbish heaps" -- and a frenzy of real estate speculation.

A remarkable array of documents and artifacts fills 23 bronze cases flanking the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the Rotunda of the National Archives, which is the magisterial building on the mall between 7th and 9th streets.

"We're trying to showcase the role that Congress played throughout American history by displaying these original congressional documents," Bustard says. "We're also trying to talk a little bit about the powers of Congress."

In 20th-century Washington, when the focus of government has shifted to the White House at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the archivists thought it important to remind people of how powerful Congress can be.

"We were interested in the relationship of the people and their representatives," Bustard says. "That's why we display a lot of different petitions from the people. And there are also a number of interesting personalities in Congressional history. Everybody from John Quincy Adams, to Henry Clay, to Joseph McCarthy. You can go on and on."

He's helped put together an illuminating refresher course in U.S. history with the real documents, notes, observation and signatures of historical figures right before your eyes.

History before your eyes

It's slightly wonderful to see the results of the first presidential election inscribed -- in a suitably elegant legislative hand -- in the first journal of the Senate:

"Whereby it seems that George Washington, Esq., was unanimously elected President, and John Adams duly elected Vice President, of the United States of America."

Maryland cast its six electoral votes for Washington, but for vice president went with Robert Hanson Harrison, a Marylander who had been Washington's secretary during the Revolutionary War.

"A lot of these documents, I think," Bustard says, "kind of connect you intimately to the past."

That first Congress, which met in Federal Hall in New York City, framed the Bill of Rights. An annotated early draft of the House Resolution proposing the amendments that make up the bill is as full of X-out deletions, line-outs and inked-in insertions as a college freshman's first paper in political science.

"One of the things I hope would come across to people is a sense that there is a process here," Bustard says, "that things are crossed out and added and amendments are dropped, eventually from 17 down to 12 and then the 10 that were ratified."

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