Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 22: 1789-1847

Chapter 22. Records of the Select Committees of the House of Representatives

Table of Contents

Records of the Select Committees of the House of Representatives (1789-1988) from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, 1789-1988

Committee records described in this chapter:

Records of House Select Committees, 1st-29th Congresses (1789-1847)

Record TypeVolumeCongress (dates)
Minute Books8 vols.3rd (1793-95), 18th-19th (1823-27), 21st (1829-31),
24th (1835-37), 26th (1839-41)
Docket Book1 vol.24th (1835-37)
Petitions & Memorials8 ft.6th-29th (1799-1847)
Committee Papers20 ft.3rd-29th (1793-1847)
TOTAL:28 ft. and
9 vols. (9 in.)
Records Summary Table

22.12 From the establishment of the Federal Government in 1789 until 1847, the House of Representatives regularly created select committees to perform the full range of committee functions during the period. Many committees were created to consider a Presidential message to Congress, a private petition or memorial, or some other communication presented to the House. The creation of other committees reflected a decision by the House that a certain issue required legislation, and a select committee was established to draft it. Still other select committees were created to conduct specific investigations.

22.13 By modern standards, the records of the committees are scanty. This is no doubt due in part to the passage of time and periods of relative neglect, but perhaps more importantly it is a reflection of a simpler age, without copying machines or professional committee staffs. Minute books and docket books are available for certain select committees; these volumes generally provide rather cursory information about the committee activities. Most records of select committees from 1789 to 1847 are contained in two series: Petitions and memorials, with resolutions of State legislatures, and committee reports and papers. While scores of select committees are represented in the records, a single item, most often a petition referred to the committee or the committee report, is frequently the only document for a particular committee. For the 10th Congress, for example, both series contain records of approximately 40 select committees, even though the series of petitions and memorials amounts to only 6 inches and the committee reports and papers series for that Congress comprise 3 inches of material.

22.14 Although the title of each record series indicates the predominant type of document contained in it, both series contain a wide variety of document types. Petitions and memorials were sometimes accompanied by various papers provided either to lend support to the case or to provide additional information. The petition from seaman Andrew Montgomery asking Congress to grant him American citizenship, for example, was accompanied by a personal narrative recounting his life and service after the ship on which he was serving was captured by Americans in the Irish Channel in June 1777. Supplementing the petition are a 1786 certificate in French from the U.S. vice-consul at Marseille that refers to Montgomery as a U.S. citizen and other documents reflecting various aspects of his career (6A-F4.3). Documents accompanying the petition of the mayor and aldermen of Natchez requesting a commons area and two lots in the city include a plan of the city and an extract of minutes of the city council (8A-F5.5). An 1806 letter from William Tatham offering to sell his extensive collection of military topographical surveys, manuscript maps, books, models, and instruments is accompanied by a general schedule of the collection, as well as an outline of the benefits that Tatham believed the Government would derive from the establishment of a "Department of Works and Public Economy" (9A-F7.2). A later file concerning Tatham consists of memorials, copies of passports and letters of recommendation and commendation, reports from the Secretary of War and others, a 1775 letter to Tatham from his wealthy British aunt expressing displeasure with his decision to side with the rebellious Americans, and a list of the Members of Congress whom Tatham knew (14A-f16.7).

22.15 In addition to committee reports, the series of committee papers often includes letters, lists, reports, and other documents received from officials in executive departments and other persons in response to committee inquiries. Bills and drafts of bills, resolutions establishing committees, and orders referring petitions and other communications to committee also may be found among committee papers. The committee reports themselves are usually the original manuscripts, often bearing pencil marks made by the printer. Some committee reports provide comprehensive documentation of the committee's activities, incorporating not only the final summation of the committee but also committee minutes, documents received relating to the committee's work, and transcripts of hearings or written interrogatories.  4

22.16 For the earliest Congresses, many documents among the committee papers series bear markings that indicate they probably are copies made at the time of preparation of the American State Papers.  5 One example is the earliest dated committee report, a manuscript copy of the July 9, 1789, report of the committee appointed on April 29 "to prepare and report an estimate of the supplies requisite for the present year, and of the nett produce of the impost as agreed to by the House" (1A-C1).

22.17 Taken as a whole, the select committee records pertain to a broad spectrum of the subjects considered by the House prior to 1848. Included are records concerning westward expansion, economic development, the controversy over slavery, establishment of new governmental structures, and myriad other topics.

22.18 Issues relating to westward expansion and internal development frequently commanded the attention of Congress during the early 19th century. Among select committee records are papers regarding compensation to Zebulon Pike and his companions for exploration services, including copies of orders, letters from Pike, and a list of participants in the 1806-7 expedition (11A-C9.2). Frontier hostilities are the subject of such documents as the copy of resolves adopted by a meeting at Vincennes, Indiana Territory, on July 31, 1811, expressing concern over the growing Indian confederation under the Prophet and his brother Tecumseh and calling upon the Government to act to ensure the security of the settlers (12A-C11.4). Also among the records is a list of losses sustained by residents of the Mississippi Territory, most of which were due to Indian depredations, during the War of 1812 (14A-F16.7).

22.19 Other select committees considered requests for preemption rights and alteration of terms for land sales in the Northwest Territory, confirmation of land grants obtained from the Spanish Government when the area was under Spanish rule, and other land ownership issues (6A-F4.3, 8A-F5.4). Some petitions and memorials were sent to Congress in hopes of gaining land grants, usually to support such educational institutions as Jefferson Academy at Vincennes, Jefferson College in Mississippi Territory, and Transylvania College in Kentucky (7A-F4.2, 21A-D25.20).

22.20 Territorial government figures in many of the records. Petitions from inhabitants of the territories, as well as communications from territorial governors or legislatures, involved issues relating to territorial government and territorial boundaries (8A-F5.5, 6A-F4.3, 9A-C5). For example, various petitions from the Territory of Indiana, as well as a memorial and joint resolutions of the Indiana Territorial Legislature, objected to the freehold requirement for suffrage in the territory and called for the right of suffrage to extend to all free males, 25 and older, who had done military service and who paid taxes (11A-f10.2).

22.21 There are reports by select committees on the admission of Mississippi Territory (11A-C9.4, 14A-C17.5) and Indiana Territory (12A-C11.4, 14A-C17.5), and also an 1818 print of the constitution of Illinois drafted by its constitutional convention (15A-D16.4). Records relating to the admission of Maine include the petition submitted by the constitutional convention, as well as a report of the Secretary of Massachusetts regarding election returns on the question of the separation of Maine from Massachusetts (16A-G21.2).

22.22 Select committees formed to consider various plans for internal improvements produced a variety of records. A number of these relate to canals, such as the printed memorial of the Kentucky General Assembly asking that a canal around the rapids of the Ohio be built on the Kentucky side. Accompanying the memorial are a print of "Proceedings of the Managers of the Ohio Canal Company at Louisville, on Wednesday, 11 September 1805" and a colored sketch and notes reflecting a survey of the location by J. Brooks (9A-F7.2). An 1811 petition regarding a canal between the Great Lakes and the Hudson River includes the signatures of Gouverneur Morris, DeWitt Clinton, Robert R. Livingston, and Robert Fulton (12A-F11.3). A petition from residents of Brooke County, VA, asked for a change in the planned route of a road to be built by the Government from the Potomac to the Ohio Rivers (10A-F9.5). Various records dating from 1801 to 1809 concern proposals for bridges or other improvements to the Potomac in the vicinity of the District of Columbia (6A-F4.3, 7A-F4.2, 10A-F9.3). There are also petitions asking for establishment of post roads between certain towns (6A-F4.1, 8A-F5.2).   6

22.23 Indications of the developments in commerce and manufacturing also appear in select committee records. Several such committees, for example, considered issues relating to the recurring controversy over a national bank. Memorials from stockholders of the first Bank of the United States asking for a renewal of the bank's charter, which was due to expire on March 4, 1811, and a committee report on the topic, are among the files from the years 1808 to 1811 (11A-C9.4, 11A-F10.4). The attempt to recharter the bank failed, but the issue did not die. For the year 1815, there are printed memorials from Philadelphia and a manuscript memorial from Maine asking for reestablishment of a national bank (14A-F16.3). The second Bank of the United States was chartered for a 20-year period beginning in April 1816. President Andrew Jackson was opposed to the Bank, and its recharter became the principal issue of the Presidential campaign of 1832. During the recharter battle in Congress involving heated debate and multiple roll calls, two select committees were established. Records of the committee appointed on March 15, 1832, "to investigate the affairs of the Bank of the United States" consist of the committee's majority and minority reports, as well as a separate report by John Quincy Adams written in his own hand. There are also printed and manuscript copies of the committee's questions to certain bank officials, along with their answers (22A-D26.1). Committee minutes and minutes of meetings of the Board of Directors of the Bank of the United States are among the records of the later committee appointed April 4, 1834, to inspect the books and examine into the proceedings of the Bank of the United States (23A-D23.1).

Petition of Eli Whitney requesting the renewal of his patent on the cotton gin, 04/16/1812 (page 1 of 8)
Petition of Eli Whitney requesting the renewal of his patent on the cotton gin, 04/16/1812 (page 8 of 8)
First and last pages of the Petition of Eli Whitney requesting the renewal of his patent on the cotton gin, April 16, 1812 (HR12A-F11.2) from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  
22.24 Congress did not usually become involved in decisions to grant patents. Occasionally, however, inventors asked Congress to grant an extension of a patent, to legislate in a patent controversy, or to confer some other favor. Some select committee records reflect this activity. There is, for example, an 1822 petition of James Bennett of Philadelphia asking for exclusive rights for 40 years to the use of his flying machine in the U.S. atmosphere. Filed with it is a dissenting letter with supporting materials from David B. Lee, claiming that he had invented the flying machine first (17A-F18.1). In an 1812 petition for renewal of the patent on the cotton gin, Eli Whitney recounted the circumstances that led him to work on the gin and reviewed events that had transpired since the invention (12A-F11.2). There is a petition from 1842 regarding international copyright issues that is signed by Washington Irving, James Renwick, W.C. Bryant, and others (27A-G26.4). Records of Congresses from 1829 to 1843 relate to inventions designed to prevent steamboat explosions (21A-G22.1, 27A-G26.5). These include a list of all steamboat accidents from 1830 to 1840, noting where each accident occurred, the number of persons killed, and the cause of the accident (26A-D30.6).

22.25 Protection of commercial shipping is the subject of certain select committee records of the period from 1793 to 1813, mostly about problems with piracy along the Barbary Coast (3A-C3.1, 8A-C4.1, 10A-C7.1, 11A-F10.4).

22.26 The slavery issue concerned several select committees. Some records focus on the slave trade, such as the petition from "Absalom Jones and others--people of color and freemen of Philadelphia" complaining, in part, that the new fugitive slave law was resulting in the apprehension of freemen. The petition includes a section that expresses the hope for the complete elimination of slavery, stating: "We do not ask for the immediate emancipation of all . . . ; yet humbly desire you may exert every means in your power to undo the heavy burdens, and prepare the way for the oppressed to go free, that every yoke may be broken" (6A-F4.2). The petition caused controversy when it was presented to Congress on January 2, 1800, by Robert Wain of Pennsylvania. Because of the section calling for the end of slavery, only those parts of the petition that related to U.S. laws regarding either fugitive slaves or the slave trade from the United States to foreign places were referred to the committee. In addition, by a vote of 85 to 1,  7 the resolution of referral was amended to state that "such part of the said petition, which invite Congress to legislate upon subjects from which the general government is precluded by the Constitution have a tendency to create disquiet and jealousy, and ought therefore to receive no encouragement or countenance from this House."

22.27 Additional select committees related to the slave trade. Among the records of the 14th Congress (1815-17) are documents of a committee established to "inquire into the existence of an inhuman and illegal traffic in slaves . . . in the District of Columbia." The documents focus on charges that certain freemen had been kidnapped under the false pretext that they were runaway slaves and include a deposition of Francis Scott Key and a copy of a Baltimore grand jury presentment (14A-C17.4). Petitions and memorials relating to this committee include a number of memorials, most of which were sent by Friends or Quakers, deploring American involvement in the slave trade, as well as a January 1817 letter from Friends Edward Stabler and John Janney indicating that they were transmitting various documents "agreeably to the suggestions of the Chairmen of the Committees of Congress" (14A-F16.6).

22.28 Other committee records address the question of slavery in the territories. A memorial from the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, dated January 29, 1804, argued against importing slaves into the Louisiana Territory (8A-F5.5). A convention of citizens from Indiana Territory, on the other hand, asked Congress for a ten-year suspension of the sixth article of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 in order to permit the introduction of slaves born within the United States. A committee report of February 14, 1806, recommended such a suspension (9A-C5).

22.29 Certain memorials of 1817 and 1818 called for the African colonization of freemen, and in 1827 and 1828 printed petitions coordinated by the American Colonization Society sought Congressional funding for such a scheme. The funding, however, was strongly opposed by the Georgia legislature when, in December 1827, it adopted and sent to Congress resolutions declaring that it would be unconstitutional for Congress to take such action (15A-G17.1, 20A-G22.1). In December 1843, the House established a select committee to consider resolutions of the Massachusetts legislature calling for Federal representation and taxation based solely on the number of free persons in each State, thus repealing the 3/5 compromise of the Constitution. Among the documents from this committee are the Massachusetts resolutions and a number of similar memorials, as well as the majority and minority reports of the committee and its minutes (28A-G26.1, 28A-D31.1).

22.30 Congress has often used select committees to investigate particular problems. The House itself was sometimes referred to during these early years as "the grand inquest of the nation," and this role is reflected in the records. The earliest record of an investigative committee is the minute book of the committee to examine the Treasury Department. It covers the period from February 24 to May 22, 1794, and includes transcriptions of correspondence, summary fiscal information, and material submitted to the committee. On the whole, the records of investigating committees tend to be more substantial than those of other types of select committees of the period, being more likely to contain minutes, correspondence, and documents submitted to the committee in the course of the investigation. The committees usually posed questions to persons knowledgeable about the subject of the investigation, either in hearings, by means of commissioners appointed to personally question the parties involved, or by means of written "interrogatories." In some cases, the resulting transcripts or copies of interrogatories and written replies are among the records.

22.31 There are records of two select committees established in the wake of the burning of Washington, DC, in August 1814. One committee conducted an inquiry into the circumstances leading to the destruction of House documents by the British, while the other inquired more generally into the reasons for the success of the British and the amount of property destroyed. (13A-D15.2, 13A-D15.3)

22.32 There are records of the select investigating committee requested by Vice President John C. Calhoun in response to allegations appearing in the press that as Secretary of War he had profited from a War Department contract to provide stone for the construction of fortifications at the Rip Rap Shoals and Old Point Comfort in Hampton Roads, VA. The records include correspondence relating to the work of the committee, such as the letter from Calhoun requesting the investigation, as well as transcripts of hearings, exhibits, depositions, the committee report, subpoenas, and other documents. A volume of committee minutes is also available (19A-D23.9).

22.33 Some records pertain to trials conducted in the House. The trial of Colonel John Anderson for contempt of the House on a charge that he had attempted to bribe a Member is documented by a committee report covering the mode of proceeding, questions and answers, narrative, apology, and explanation by Anderson (15A-D16.4).

22.34 Samuel Houston was a central figure in the activities of two select committees during the 22d Congress (1831-1833) that stemmed from allegations of irregularities in the 1830 award to Houston of a War Department contract to supply food for emigrating Indians. In 1832, William Stanberry of Ohio referred to the charges in a speech to the House. Two weeks later, Houston assaulted Stanberry on the streets of Washington. A select committee on privileges was established on April 17, 1832, to report a mode of proceeding in the trial of Houston before the House for violation of the privileges of the House. Its report was issued that same day and is among the records (22A-D26.13). Houston was found guilty of contempt and reprimanded at the bar of the House. Immediately after the reprimand, Stanberry proposed the establishment of a select committee to investigate the allegations concerning the contract. Records of that committee include an unbound journal containing committee minutes, copies of committee correspondence, and transcripts of questions in the case. There are also subpoenas (including one for Houston) and copies of the bids received for the contract (22A-D26.2).

22.35 Assaults, fights, or threats of violence are the subject of other select committee records during this period (15A-D16.4, 20A-D25.3, 23A-D23.1, 26A-D30.2). For example, there are records of the 1837 trial of Reuben M. Whitney on charges of contempt for refusing the summons of the select committee to inquire into the administration of the executive departments. He refused on the grounds that, during his testimony before the select committee on the employment of an agent by deposit banks, his life had been threatened (24A-D24.1).

22.36 Committee reports, replies from executive departments, petitions, and other documents are available among records of certain select committees that dealt with various governmental issues, such as the 1810 committee on the condition of the archives (11A-C9.4), the 1814 committees that considered rebuilding Washington or changing the seat of government following the British attack (13A-D15.4), and the committees on retrenchment formed for the purpose of considering ways to reduce governmental expenses (20A-D25.2, 27A-D25.7, 28A-D31.1, 28A-G26.1). Among records directly relating to certain governmental operations is a bound volume containing the original 1837 report of the select committee on the West Point Academy, including lists with information about cadets and officers, 1802-36.

22.37 Pensions or private claims sometimes came under the jurisdiction of select committees. Governmental action was sometimes sought on behalf of a class of persons, such as disabled veterans of the American Revolution (10A-F9.4) or witnesses who had testified at the trial of Aaron Burr (10A-C7.1, 12A-F11.4), but more often the claimant was an individual. Among the individuals whose claims were considered by select committees before 1847 are Daniel Boone (12A-C11.4), Andrew Jackson (15A-G17.3), Arthur St. Clair (15A-G17.3), and James Monroe (18A-C20.4, 19A-D23.1, 20A-D25.1, 21A-G22.3).

22.38 Select committees considered a myriad of other subjects, including the Alien and Sedition Acts and their effects (6A-F4.3, 7A-F3.1, 16A-D26.4), education of deaf and dumb persons (15A-D16.4, 18A-F20.3, 20A-G22.2, 21A-D25.4), and proposed constitutional amendments (8A-C4.1, 18A-C20.6, 23A--D23.1, 24A-D24.1, 27A-D25.1). A few bound volumes among the records include a minute book that contains minutes of meetings of the joint committee on the Smithsonian Bequest (January 26 to February 18, 1839), as well as minutes for the periods when only a House select committee existed to deal with the matter (January 4-8, 1839, and January 15, 1840, to April 6, 1842). Entries in the volume were made by John Quincy Adams.

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4 Beginning in 1817 (15th Cong.), all committee reports were published in the Congressional Serial Set. Before 1817, some reports were printed in either the House Journal or American State Papers. See "Research Strategies for Using the Records of Congress" for more information on these publications.
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5 For information on the role of the Clerk of the House in the publication of American State Papers, see the description of the Joint Committees on the Library.
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6 In creating post roads, the Government did not undertake the building of roads but rather designated routes along which post offices would be established.
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7 Only George Thatcher of Massachusetts voted against the amendment to the resolution.
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Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.