George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were determined that the United States Capitol be a meaningful expression of America's new political and social order. The Constitution, ratified in 1788, had given the country its governing structure; the Capitol, begun three years later, was still incomplete when Congress first met there in November 1800. Construction of the original building took thirty-four years and was directed by six presidents and six architects. Opinions among statesmen and designers differed as to how to achieve a symbolically potent yet functionally efficient building within a Neoclassical framework. Conceiving of themselves as inheritors, guardians, and conveyors of Western civilization, they slowly built a Capitol that drew upon both American and European emblematic and architectural traditions.

The Capitol was found to be too small soon after it was completed in 1826. Several proposals during the 1830s and 1840s to extend it either to the east or with new legislative wings attached to the north and south led to a second competition in 1850-51. The Capitol Extension dwarfed the original structure, dramatically changing its physical appearance, as Victorian exuberance replaced Neoclassical sedateness.

During both building campaigns symbolic, aesthetic, and pragmatic issues were of paramount concern, because all the participants recongnized they were creating America's most important public building. In addition to legislative chambers, committee rooms, and offices for the Senate and House of Representatives, the Capitol accommodated the Library of Congress until 1897 and the Supreme Court until 1935.