Constitutionally mandated to be the “People’s House,” the House of Representatives has always been elected directly by the voters biennially.
“The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”
— U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 2, clause 1
In Federalist 52, James Madison writes: “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general, should have a common interest with the people; so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration, should have an immediate dependence on, & an intimate sympathy with the people.” Frequent elections, therefore, were key to the “intimate sympathy” Members of the House were supposed to have with their constituents. Frequent elections in the House also helped to justify the longer terms of Senators, particularly for Federalists who were concerned about popular opinion swaying public policy and faced attacks for creating an “aristocratic” chamber in Congress to represent state interests. Learn more about the constitutional and historical origins of biennial, direct elections.
Election information can be difficult to research. Since 1920, the Office of the Clerk has published an official compilation of all federal election returns. Commonly referred to as “Election Statistics,” the Statistics of the Congressional Election lists House, Senate, and Presidential (every four years) returns.
Each state submits an official certificate of election for each successful candidate to the House of Representatives to the Clerk of the House. These certificates are part of the collection of House Documents stored at the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Unique to each state, these often-ornate certificates provide an interesting look into the past and offer the opportunity for student discussion. Examine Tennessee Representative Davy Crockett’s 1827 certificate.
The Election of John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts
On November 6, 1830, John Quincy Adams enthusiastically wrote, “I am a member elect of the twenty-second Congress.” The November 1, 1830, election made Adams the first and only former President to be elected to the House of Representatives.
The Historic 54th Congress
On December 2, 1895, the 54th Congress (1895–1897) convened a little more than a year after what proved to be a historic midterm election. Voters decimated the rolls of the House Democrats, who held a nearly 100-seat majority in the 53rd Congress (1893–1895); the party had lost 116 seats or 32 percent of the total House membership. Bolstered by a record-setting freshman class of 176 total first-term Members, the Republicans picked up 120 seats (34 percent).
The “Comebacks” of the 64th Congress
December 6, 1915, as the House began to organize itself at the opening of the 64th Congress (1915–1917), a monumental number of returning Members were sworn in. Nearly one-third of the opening day roster had not served in the 63rd Congress (1913–1915). One hundred nineteen were true freshmen, most of them Republicans who had picked up a large number of seats in the midterm election. Another 22 were Members who had lost re-election in 1912.
See more Historical Highlights on the topic of election.
Edith Nourse Rogers
Elected by her constituents 18 times, Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts has the distinction of being the longest serving female Member in House history.
History Blog: “You Start It and You Like the Work, and You Just Keep On”
“The first 30 years are the hardest,” Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts said of her more than three decades in the U.S. House of Representatives. The former Red Cross volunteer nurse compared her tenure to “taking care of the sick. You start it and you like the work, and you just keep on.” To date, 259 Members have served 30 years or more in the U.S. Congress, constituting just two percent of the total historic membership. Yet in an institution where long service often yields greater power, many of these Members became some of the House’s most famous and influential people. More...
Since 1789, every Representative’s journey to Congress began with a campaign for election. Campaign ephemera were an integral part of that journey. Explore a collection of unique campaign buttons, stickers, cards, and materials.
Learn about the political beginnings for Women, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in Congress.
Women in Congress
Like all history, the story of women in Congress is defined by change over time: From a complete lack of representation in Congress before 1917, women have advanced to party leadership at the start of the 21st century. More...
Black Americans in Congress
The arrival of Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina on Capitol Hill in 1870 ranks among the great paradoxes in American history; just a decade earlier, these African Americans’ congressional seats were held by southern slave owners. Moreover, the U.S. Capitol, where these newest Members of Congress came to work—the center of legislative government, conceived by its creators as the “Temple of Liberty”—had been constructed with the help of enslaved laborers. More...
Hispanic Americans in Congress
On September 30, 1822, Joseph M. Hernández began his service in Congress as Florida’s first Territorial Delegate, pioneering Hispanic-American representation in the American republic. Like other Hispanic Americans in the federal legislature during the 1800s, Hernández advanced from the periphery of the Union to hold a brief term in an office whose core duties were more diplomatic than legislative, working to turn the former Spanish colony where he was born into a state. Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822–2012, chronicles the story of Hernández and the more than 90 Hispanics who followed him into Congress. More...
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory