What is Congress? - Definition & History

Instructor: Kenyetta Mitchell
In this lesson we will explore the role of Congress. Learn about the main duties of the U.S. legislative branch of government we call Congress. Why and when was Congress created? Test your understanding with a quiz.

What is Congress? - Definition, History & Quiz


Do you believe that citizens of the United States should have fair representation in government? Well so did the founders, or Framers, of the United States Constitution. The Framers were individuals who contributed to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution wanted a strong national government, but wanted to ensure the federal government did not have too much power over the states and the freedoms of the people. Eventually, they came up with a way to balance federal and state powers and divide federal power into three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Congress, the legislative branch of the federal government, has three main roles. These roles are: making the nation's laws, overseeing the performance of government agencies, and helping constituents, or residents, of each Congressperson's district or state. The legislative branch of government was so important to the Framers that it was the first branch of government they discussed in the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. Congress in Session

U.S. Congress in Session

History of Congress

The United States' structure of government is strongly influenced by British government. Not only did English colonists bring with them the tools necessary for survival, they also brought tools for creating government - important ideals that formed the basis of government in England. One important political ideal that English colonists brought with them to North America was representative government with a bicameral, or two-chamber, legislature. For example, most colonies were comprised of councils who served as the upper house of the colony's assembly along with the colonists' elected representatives. Eventually, these councils and representative assemblies helped set the stage for the emergence of Congress in the United States.

After 1760, the relationship between English colonists and Great Britain became strained due to political distance. English officials believed colonists had become too independent, and colonists were outraged by newly imposed taxes. As a consequence, in 1774, official representatives from most of the colonies met in Philadelphia at the First Continental Congress in response to unfair British laws. And later in 1775, the Second Continental Congress met, again in Philadelphia, to discuss a plan of action to declare independence from England. After the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress faced the challenge of forming a new government for the thirteen independent states. However, there was no Constitution or other legal document giving Congress the authority to execute certain laws.

Therefore, in 1777, the Second Continental Congress created the Articles of Confederation. This document formed a new central government and gave the new Confederation Congress powers such as declaring war and signing foreign treaties. Initially, the powers of the new government laid in a unicameral, or one-chamber, legislature: the Congress. There was no national executive branch to carry out Congress's laws or judicial branch to enforce them. The weaknesses of the government under the Articles made unity among the states difficult and led to a need for a stronger national government.

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