Congress and the Constitution

The Civil War to 1910: The Golden Age of Parties

Clock 150 minutes

After the Civil War, Congress grew increasingly assertive and also became more concerned with how it organized itself as a legislative body.  This period was marked by clashes over the powers of party bosses,  the proper role of Speakers of the House, and the influence committees and committee chairs over the progress of legislation.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Consent of the Governed image

Consent of the Governed

The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.

Separation of Powers image

Separation of Powers

A system of distinct powers built into the Constitution to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.


James Madison [Virginia]: The lesson we are to draw from the whole is, that where a majority are united by a common sentiment, and have an opportunity, the rights of the minor party become insecure. In a republican government, the majority, if united, have always an opportunity. The only remedy is, to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that, in the first place, a majority will not be likely, at the same moment, to have a common interest separate from that of the whole, or of the minority; and, in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be so apt to unite in the pursuit of it. It was incumbent on us, then, to try this remedy, and, with that view, to frame a republican system on such a scale, and in such a form, as will control all the evils which have been experienced.” - THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 (JUNE 6, 1787)


With the defeat of the Confederate States of America in 1865, the victorious Union faced the question of how to rebuild a single nation. Congress and the Democratic Party were tainted by their association with “Copperheads,” who had sought peace at the price of recognizing the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. For this reason, the powers of both Congress and the Democratic Party were at their lowest point, and the Republicans and their president reigned supreme.
After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the new president, Andrew Johnson, controversially attempted to allow the former Confederate States’ representatives to take their seats in Congress. This move outraged the populace of the North and West. Not only were former Confederate rebels returning to the Congress, but these states would have even greater representation and power, as the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment allowed the Southern states to count their massive African American populations in full for the first time in their history.


  • Students will examine the major events that shaped the methods and acts of Congress as they responded to a rapidly-changing political and economic landscape.
  • Students will take an in-depth look at the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, and analyze Congress’s power of impeachment.
  • Students will analyze the separation of powers among the three branches, and understand how that balance is maintained in the Constitution.


  • Handout A: Background Essay: The Golden Age of Parties — The Civil War to 1910
  • Handout B: Separation of Powers – The Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson
  • Handout C: The Articles of Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
  • Answer Keys

Key Terms

  • Speaker of the House
  • Political party
  • Caucus
  • Disappearing quorum
  • Thomas B. Reed
  • Joseph Cannon
  • Standing Committee
  • Stalwarts/Radical Republicans
  • Insurgents
  • Select Committee
  • Rules Committee
  • Ways and Means Committee
  • Appropriations Committee
  • Tenure of Office Act
  • Impeachment
  • “Pork-barrel”
  • Whip
  • Imperialism


  • National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS): D2.Civ.4.9-12 and D2.Civ.6.9-12
  • Center for Civic Education (CCE): CCE II, D, 5
  • UCLA Department of History: National Center for History in the Schools, United States History Content Standards (NCHS): Era 5, Std. 3 and Era 7, Std. 1

Background Homework45 min. total

Background or Warm-Up Activity: Discussion and Caucus » 30 minutes homework and 15 minutes class time

  1. Distribute and assign for homework Handout A: Background Essay: The Golden Age of Parties—The Civil War to 1910
  2. Lead the class in a discussion of the groups that contended for power during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Have the students identify and describe issues that were important to the people of the time.

Activities 60 min.

  1. As a class, read the introduction on Handout B: The Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson
  2. As a class, read and discuss the introduction to Handout B. Ensure students have a general understanding of the circumstances surrounding the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
  3. Break students into groups of three to five and have them read Handout C: Excerpts from the Articles of Impeachment for President Andrew Johnson and answer the critical thinking questions.

Wrap-up Discussion 60 min.

  1. Lead the class in a discussion about the impeachment of President Johnson. Possible discussion questions are listed below.
    1. How is the power of impeachment intended to help to maintain the balance of power between the branches? To what extent is impeachment successful in that goal?
    2. Johnson’s impeachment is often characterized as merely political, and not reflective of constitutional principles. After reading the articles of impeachment, to what extent do you believe this to be so? Explain.
    3. What are the dangers of a political impeachment?
    4. Today, the power of the executive branch has grown immensely. To what extent has this increase in executive power had an effect on the importance of the power of impeachment? Explain.
    5. The Senate conducts the trial in impeachment proceedings, yet they are also charged with being the president’s counsel. To what extent do you believe this is a possible conflict of interest? Explain.
  2. Lead the students to an understanding of how their choices compared and contrasted to the real historical strategies of the individuals involved.
  3. Postscript: Explain that, though the trial was primarily about the Tenure of Office Act, Johnson’s detractors also said that he represented the return of “Slave Power” to the United States because of his preference for leniency to the South. At the end of the impeachment trial, thirty-five senators voted to convict Johnson, only one vote short of the two-thirds majority necessary to remove him from office. Johnson served the remaining 10 months of his term, continuing to veto bills that he believed were unconstitutional. Congress continued to override his vetoes. However, he did enforce the laws when passed. The Tenure of Office Act was largely repealed in 1887, and its principles were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1926 in Myers v. United States.

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