Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 22: 1847-1909

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, 30th-60th Congresses (1847-1909)

Record TypeVolumeCongress (dates)
Minute Books36 vols.40th-42nd (1867-73), 44th-52nd (1875-93), 55th (1897-99), 57th (1901-03), 60th (1907-09)
Docket Book33 vols.41st-48th (1869-85), 50th-52nd (1887-93)
Petitions & Memorials 45 ft.30th (1847-49), 33d-52nd (1853-93), 55th-56th (1897-1901)
Committee Papers39 ft.30th-52nd (1847-93), 54th-58th (1895-1905)
TOTAL:84 ft. and
69 vols. (6 ft.)
Committee Records Summary Table

22.39 During the period from 1847 to 1909, the U.S. Congress legislated for a Nation undergoing transformation. A bloody Civil War brought cataclysmic changes in the social, economic, and political life of the country. Territorial expansion and economic development also contributed to the growing complexity of the issues facing Congress. The House of Representatives relied on select committees to deal with many of the problems brought on by these changing conditions.

22.40 Minute books of the period, all of which postdate 1867, exist for only a small percentage of the select committees. The minutes themselves tend to be rather cursory, though there are exceptions. Docket books, which catalog the bills, resolutions, petitions, or other documents referred to a committee, appear with approximately the same frequency as minute books. Petitions and memorials, with resolutions of State legislatures are filed in a separate series. Some of these documents offer insight into the public's perspective on the great issues of the day, while others reveal individual or local efforts to influence Congress on their own behalf. Committee papers 8 relating to select committees from 1847 to 1909 contain a wide variety of document types, with committee reports being the type most frequently encountered. Also among the committee papers are resolutions, bills, amendments, committee minutes, affidavits, and transcripts of hearings, as well as correspondence with Members of Congress, Federal agencies, and the public.

22.41 The Civil War and issues relating to it placed special demands on Congress, as the Federal Government struggled to survive. During the prewar, wartime, and postwar periods, the House of Representatives repeatedly relied on select committees to consider and report on developing issues. Among the records from the volatile period preceding the war, for example, are the manuscript majority and minority reports of a select committee to look into a fracas between two Members of Congress, Amos Granger of New York and Fayette McMullin of Virginia, that took place on a bus in the District of Columbia on August 18, 1856. The committee report includes the committee journal and transcripts of hearings, at which each of the parties involved in the scuffle were allowed to interrogate witnesses (34A-D24.1).

22.42 The records of two select committees established in response to Presidential messages received during the months between the election and inauguration of Abraham Lincoln document congressional attempts to reach an agreement that would avert the impending war. In response to the section of President James Buchanan's annual message that related to "the present perilous condition of the country," the so-called Committee of Thirty-three was created on December 4, 1860, and continued until January 14, 1861, when it reported to the House. Another select committee was created in response to the special message from President Buchanan of January 9, 1861, commenting on the situation in South Carolina, where a special convention had voted unanimously for secession and Federal forts, arsenals, and magazines had been seized. Among the records of the two committees are printed bills and resolutions with handwritten revisions, proposed amendments, and newspaper clippings. There are also petitions and memorials, both manuscript and printed; most seek a compromise to avert civil war, but some are in favor of war. Many express support for the Crittenden Compromise, while a few call for a national convention in order to reach a settlement. Memorials of public meetings in Caldwell County and Asheville, NC, favored secession "if necessary," while another memorial from North Carolina stressed that secession should be avoided and suggested various proposals to avert a crisis. A petition from New Jersey mechanics called for a general election to decide whether to accept a compromise (36A-D26.2, 36A-G23, 36A-G25).

22.43 As the war got underway, enormous expenditures for supplies required by the military inevitably led to reports of abuses of the procurement system and to calls in Congress for an investigation into the situation. On July 8, 1861, the Select Committee on Government Contracts was created. Chaired by Charles Van Wyck of New York, the committee conducted inquiries in 12 cities, hearing from hundreds of witnesses on a wide variety of governmental contracts. Records include House resolutions regarding the committee, committee requests for papers from Federal agencies, notes regarding potential witnesses, transcripts of hearings, correspondence of members of the committee, and copies of governmental contracts and related materials provided by government departments. The correspondence includes letters from citizens offering information on suspected fraudulent activities, as well as letters from persons involved in governmental contracts (37A-E21.1).

22.44 The advocacy of prudent military measures and promotion of local development combined in the petitions and memorials that constitute the records of the select committees created to consider the establishment of a national armory west of the Allegheny mountains and the Select Committee on Defense of the Great Lakes and Rivers. Among the localities touted for the armory were Chicago and Rock Island, IL; Toledo and Cincinnati, OH; and Pittsburgh, Johnstown, and Danville, PA (37A-G21.1, 38A-G25.2). Fortifying the Straits of Mackinac and the various harbors in the Great Lakes region, the establishment of a naval depot, and construction of a canal around Niagara Falls are among other proposals relating to the defense of the northern lakes (37A-G21.3).

22.45 Some select committees considered policies regarding slaves. On April 7, 1862, for example, the House authorized a select committee to consider the feasibility and desirability of proposals for gradual emancipation in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. Petitions and memorials referred to the committee are among the records. Most are printed, and many contain general statements favoring abolition. A number of memorials from Maryland called for compensated emancipation in the States that remained loyal to the Union. One petition from free blacks in the District of Columbia asked for an area to be set aside for blacks in "Central America" (37A-G21.4). Another select committee was appointed during the 38th Congress, on December 14, 1863, to consider issues relating to emancipation. Committee minutes, notes, a copy of a bill to establish a Bureau of Emancipation, and various petitions and memorials are among the records of this committee (38A-E23.2, 38A-G25.1).

22.46 The debate over Reconstruction dominated American politics in the years following the Civil War. The problems facing the Nation as it struggled to recover are reflected in the records of several select committees that dealt with conditions in the defeated Southern States and with the formulation of policy to restore the South to the Union.

22.47 The most important of these was the Select Committee on Reconstruction, created on July 3, 1867, as successor to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.9 Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania served as chairman until his death in 1868, when he was succeeded in that position by George Boutwell and subsequently Benjamin Butler, both of Massachusetts. The committee investigated conditions in the South, including "the Ku Klux outrages' and election irregularities. The House also referred to this committee the applications for removal of political disabilities imposed by section 3 of the 14th Amendment. That section barred from civil or military office any person who had violated their official oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution by supporting the Confederacy; the section included a proviso that, by a two-thirds vote of each House, Congress could remove the disability. Records of the committee are substantial (30 ft.) and consist mostly of petitions in the form of letters from individuals praying for the removal of political disabilities imposed upon them and related documents supporting or opposing specific removals. An example of such a related document is the letter from General U.S. Grant in support of the removal of the political disabilities of former Confederate General James Longstreet. Other records include letters from private individuals and from civil and military officials that provide information, offer opinions, and suggest courses of action in regard to the former Confederate States. Included also are two July 19, 1867, veto messages from President Andrew Johnson regarding Reconstruction legislation that were overridden. A rolled petition signed by 3,400 citizens of Rhode Island that is among the records was aimed at changing suffrage requirements imposed by that State's constitution and called for enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments there (40A-F28.4, 40A-H21, 41A-F28.2, 41A-H18). Seven volumes from the committee are available, including lists, indexes, dockets, and a minute book covering the period from March 1869 to February 1871. A finding aid to most of the records of the committee is available and includes lists of folder titles.

22.48 A grim example of conditions in the postwar South occurred in October 1865, when three U.S. Army soldiers were murdered in South Carolina. Arrests were made and subsequently a military commission condemned the accused to death. After the condemned were transferred to another prison and released on a writ of habeas corpus, the House created the Select Committee on the Murder of Union Soldiers in South Carolina to investigate the entire matter. Records of the committee include transcripts of testimony, official copies of the trial transcript, copies of papers and correspondence of the War Department, and copies of petitions concerning the accused that had been sent to the President (39A-F28.2).

22.49 Civil War veterans constituted one of the most important political constituencies in the postwar period, and occasionally select committees were created to deal with issues of particular importance to them. The records include transcripts of public hearings held by the Select Committee on Soldiers' and Sailors' Bounties in 1867 (40A-F28.3). Records of the 1867-68 Select Committee on Fraud in the Pay Department pertain to an investigation of allegations that black veterans were being defrauded of bounties. Included are affidavits relating to claims, requests for materials, communications between the committee and executive departments, and various documents provided to the committee by governmental agencies (40A-F28.1). The Select Committee on the Payment of Pensions, Bounty, and Back Pay, created on January 12, 1880, considered the cases of 539 dissatisfied veterans. Records of the committee consist in large part of letters written to the committee by disappointed claimants, occasionally accompanied by letters from the Pension Office of the Department of Interior or by affidavits in support of the claims. There are also other letters and petitions received by the committee in support of sundry specific legislative proposals, as well as two volumes of letter press copies of outgoing letters, including indexes by name of addressee. Various communications and papers from Federal agencies are among the records, such as tables from the Commissioner of Pensions listing the claimants from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin whose claims were rejected between August and December 1884 (46A-F41.1-2, 46A-H28.1, 47A-F33.1, 47A-H25.1-5, 48A-F43.1, 48A- H34.1-10).

22.50 Postwar politics were characterized by bitter partisanship that at times sparked controversies that led to the establishment of select committees. In February 1867, while the House Committee on the Judiciary considered a resolution of impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, rumors spread through Washington that certain Members of Congress had met privately with Johnson to strike a bargain whereby they would vote against any report unfavorable to the President in exchange for Presidential support on certain matters. In reaction, the House established a Select Committee on Alleged Private Meetings of Members of the House with a View to a Corrupt Bargain with the President. Records of the committee consist of copies of House resolutions to establish the committee, transcripts of committee testimony, and newspaper clippings about the alleged bargaining (39A-F28.1).

22.51 Several select committees were appointed to consider various aspects of the controversial 1876 Presidential election between Samuel J. Tilden of New York and Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, which led to the end of the Reconstruction era. Records of the Select Committee on the Privileges, Powers, and Duties of the House of Representatives in Counting the Electoral Votes for President and Vice President of the United States contain materials pertaining to the contested votes in six States and document the work of the electoral commission set up by Congress to resolve the controversy, including the formal objections from Senators and Representatives to the counting of the votes of specific electors and the reports of the electoral commission. There are also a number of petitions and memorials, some of which counsel fairness and impartiality while others take a clear position on the candidates. A volume of committee minutes covers the period from January 6 to March 2, 1877 (44A-F39.2, 44A-H21.2).

22.52 Another select committee that concerned the 1876 election was the Select Committee on Alleged Frauds in the Late Presidential Election, established on October 2, 1877. Records include manuscripts of the proceedings of the electoral commission and the joint meeting of the two Houses of Congress to count the electoral votes, printed Congressional documents, an "extra" edition of the New York Tribune, and committee exhibits, correspondence, affidavits, and interrogatories. There is a minute book for the period from May 22, 1878, to March 3, 1879 (45A-F37.1).

Garfield and Arthur Campaign Song Book, Published by the Republican Congressional Committee, ca.1880
Garfield and Arthur Campaign Song Book, Published by the Republican Congressional Committee, ca.1880 (HR46A-F39.1) from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  

22.53 The records of many select committees of the period have nothing to do with the Civil War and related issues. Among these are the records of various investigative committees established during the 31st to the 60th Congresses (1849-1909). Most relate to investigations of governmental agencies or officials, and some pertain to significant scandals in American history. Included are the 1873 investigation to determine whether prominent politicians had accepted stock in the Credit Mobilier company used by officials of the Union Pacific Railroad to siphon off profits from construction of the railroad (42A-F31.1), and the 1876 inquiry into the St. Louis Whiskey Ring that was devised to defraud the Government of the internal revenue tax (44A-F39.7). The records of investigative committees generally consist of reports, depositions, correspondence, transcripts of testimony, and exhibits. There may also be papers collected during the course of investigations. Among the records of the Select Committee on Alleged Abuses of the Franking Privilege, for example, are political materials, such as the "Garfield and Arthur Campaign Song Book, 1880" and 'Maxims of James Abram Garfield," that had been mailed in franked envelopes (46A-F39.1). Committee minutes are available for some of the investigative committees. The combined minute and docket book of the 1877-79 Select Committee on Reform in the Civil Service includes minutes of the subcommittee to examine and audit claims against the House of Representatives arising from charges that John W. Polk, Doorkeeper of the House, had employed 63 more persons than authorized for that office (45A-F37.4).

22.54 Records exist for a number of select committees concerning social issues of the day. Some of these considered immigration policy, with the earliest created in response to a section of President Lincoln's annual message of 1863 concerning encouragement of European immigration (38A-E23.3). Certain select committees from 1887-93 focused on the issue of limiting immigration, particularly from China. Records of these committees consist mainly of petitions favoring limitations, but they also include copies of bills, depositions, communications from governmental agencies, and committee minutes (50A-H33.1, 51A-F46.1-3, 51A-H27.1-3, 52A-F50.1-3, 52A-H28.1-4).

22.55 Concern over epidemics of contagious diseases attracted the attention of select committees of Congress in the years 1877- 85. The records of these committees include printed bills and resolutions, a manuscript report from a committee-appointed board of experts, letters and memorials received from health associations and others, and committee minutes. Among the topics considered were a national quarantine policy and the role of the National Board of Health. The minute book of the 1879-81 Select Committee on the Origin, Introduction, and Prevention of Epidemic Diseases also contains minutes of a joint session of both House and Senate committees on epidemics and of a joint House-Senate subcommittee appointed to visit Memphis and other places to study causes and prevention of yellow fever and cholera (45A-F37.3, 46A-F38.1, 46A-H26.1, 48A-F45.1, 48A-H35.1).

22.56 From 1879 to 1893, the House maintained a Select Committee on Alcoholic Liquor Traffic. Records consist mostly of petitions and memorials from religious groups or temperance associations, such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Sons of Temperance. Many called for the appointment of a commission to study the alcoholic liquor traffic and its relation to public revenue and taxation, crime, pauperism, morals, and other matters. Other memorials proposed legislative restrictions on alcoholic beverages. There are also bills and resolutions, and docket and minute books (46A-H25.1-3, 47A-F31.1-2, 47A-H23.1, 48A-F37.1-2, 48A-H31.1-2, 50A-H31.1, 51A-F43.1-3, 51A-H24.1-7, 52A-F46.1-2, 52A-H25.1-3).

22.57 Various records, mainly petitions and memorials, pertain to committees dealing with matters of commerce or economics, such as the 1854 Select Committee on the Guano Trade (33A-D21.5, 33A-G27.1), the Civil War era Select Committee on a Bankrupt Law (37A-G21.2), and several committees created during the 1870's and 1880's to consider issues relating to American shipping (41A-F28.3, 41A-H16.1, 48A-F38.1, 48A-H32.1, 49A-H26.1-3). Records of the Select Committee on the Interoceanic Ship Canal, established on December 16, 1879, include letters received from private citizens and Federal agencies, bills and resolutions referred to the committee, private and governmental publications regarding proposals for canals, transcripts of hearings, memorials, a minute book, and a docket volume. There is a large foldout map and topographical profile of a canal route across Nicaragua from the year 1852 and sketches of a ship railway that were prepared by William F. Channing in 1859 and 1865 (46A-F40.1-3, 46A-H27.1). There are also records of select committees regarding a railroad to the Pacific (34A- D24.4, 34A-G23.1, 36A-D26.3, 36A-G24.1, 39A-H26.3), the establishment of postal telegraph lines (41A-F28.1), and the irrigation of arid lands (51A-H29).

22.58 Records exist for a number of select committees dealing with specific governmental functions. Petitions and memorials, letters and papers received, maps, charts, and minute and docket volumes dating from 1869 to 1903 document some of the numerous select committees regarding the census (41A-H16.1, 41A-F28.4, 47A-F32.1-3, 47A-H24.1, 551A-f45.1-3, 51A-H26.1-4). During the 52d Congress (1891-93), the Select Committee on the Eleventh Census investigated the Census Bureau, and the records include minutes, affidavits, correspondence, statements of witnesses, and various copies of newspapers or clippings. An October 1891 article from the New York Herald that is among the records proclaims "Speed Everything Accuracy Nothing" as it reports on the use of the Hollerith machine, considered the first computer used by the U.S. Government, to transcribe the census results (52A-F49.3). Among records of another select committee on the census are minutes of the Republican Caucus in February 1902 (57A-F39.1).

22.59 The records of various select committees, dating from 1853 to 1893, concern civilian employees of the Federal Government. These concern such matters as the superintendence of civil works by military officers (33A-D21.11), apportionment of governmental positions among residents of the various States (35A-D23.3), reorganization and reform of the civil service (42A-F31.2, 42A-H16.1, 45A-F37.4, 46A-H29.1, 51A-F49.1-3, 52A-F52.1-3), and veterans preference in hiring (51A-H30.1, 52A-H29.1). Bills, resolutions, reports, petitions and memorials, correspondence, minutes, and dockets are included.

22.60 Miscellaneous other subjects considered by select committees from 1847 and 1909 are documented among the records. From the period before the Civil War, for example, there are protests against European taxation of American tobacco products (30A-D26.7, 36A-D26.6), while there are numerous turn-of-the-century protests against allowing polygamist Brigham Roberts to take a seat in the House (55A-H31.1, 56A- H30.1). The foundation of the Capitol extension (32A-D23.1), the Washington Monument (33A-D21.12, 42A-F31.4), and the World's Columbian Exposition of 1892 (51A-F50, 51A-H31, 52A-F47) are among notable undertakings of the era mentioned in the records.

This Web version is updated from time to time to include records processed since 1989.

Table of Contents


8. The title of this series is committee reports and papers for records dating before 1862.

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9. For information on the joint committee and its records, as well as records of the House select committee that are filed with the joint committee's records, see the description of the records of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.

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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.