United States Congress
The United States Congress is a term that refers to the legislative body of the United States of America in many forms over the course of time. The Congress started as the Continental Congress, which prosecuted the American Revolutionary War. It evolved into the Confederation Congress, which was the legislative body formed by the Articles of Confederation following the close of the Revolutionary War. The final evolution was into the current Constitutional Congress. (Note that "Constitutional Congress" is only used to distinguish the current Congress from the others; in normal usage, the Constitutional Congress is referred to simply as "Congress.")
The Continental Congress
In September 1774, delegates from twelve of the American colonies gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss a response to a series of laws passed by the British Parliament in March of that year. The acts, called the Coercive Acts by the British and the Intolerable Acts by the Americans, aimed at punishing the colonies for their support of acts of rebellion the Boston Tea Party. This gathering would eventually be called the First Continental Congress. The Congress drafted a document called The Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which they sent to the King. The Congress encouraged the boycott of British goods to add economic punch to their philosophical arguments for more home rule.
(It should be noted that the First Continental Congress was not the first use of the word Congress in American political history. In 1765, after the passage of the Stamp Act by Parliament, the colonies formed the Stamp Act Congress to draft a response. In 1754, the colonies met in Albany, New York to discuss Indian affairs and trade, but continental government was also discussed; this meeting was called the Albany Congress.)
The First Continental Congress adjourned until May of 1775, the time in between meetings designed to give the King time to respond to the Declaration. It also gave the two side time to come to blows. Following the First Continental Congress, the colonies began to gear up for war, training militias to fight (though many colonists were veterans of British military campaigns on the North American continent). It is during this time that the infamous "shoot heard 'round the world" was fired in Lexington, Massachusetts. When the delegates reconvened, again in Philadelphia, the meeting was termed the Second Continental Congress. The response of the King to the Declaration was predictable - the colonies were his subjects and did not have the right to challenge his policies (as expressed through Parliament). The fighting in Massachusetts underscored the King's response. Congress met throughout the summer, conducting itself like an independent national legislature, including the formation of armies and negotiation of international relations.
The Second Continental Congress also drafted the Declaration of Independence, the signing of which is celebrated as the day of the United States' independence from Britain. The Second Continental Congress adjourned in December 1776, and almost immediately, a new Congress convened.
The Third Continental Congress was the last, and its major role was the prosecution of the war. It also, however, agreed to the Articles of Confederation, a plan for government based on the Confederation Congresses themselves. The Articles were proposed in 1777, but were not ratified by the colonies, now styled "states", until 1781. The Revolutionary War ended two years later.
The Confederation Congress
The Congress created by the Articles of Confederation was based on the model established by the Continental Congresses. Each state would be represented in Congress by a number of delegates chosen by the state, though at least two and no more than seven. When voting, however, delegates from each state would decide how the state would vote, and then the state would vote as one.
The Confederation Congress took several powers for itself, including the negotiation of treaties, the fixing of weights and measures, regulation of trade with Indian tribes, and the establishment of post offices. Notably, the Congress did not have sole authority to coin money (it shared this power with the states), and had no power to require payment of levied taxes.
The Confederation Congress first met in 1781 and met until its replacement by the Constitutional Congress in 1789.
The Constitutional Congress
The Constitutional Congress was created by Article 1 of the United States Constitution. The Congress is bicameral, unlike its unicameral precedents. It also had its delegates voting as individuals rather than as states. The new House of Representatives introduced proportional representation, giving states with larger populations more representation, while retaining state equality in the Senate, where each state has two representatives.
In addition to the new structure provided in the Constitution, the Congress was provided with far more power than ever before. This shift from state-centric power to national power was the result of the experience gained from watching the Confederation Congress operate. For example, in many cases, legislation that would have benefited the entire country was rejected by the negative vote of one or a few states. For another example, amendment of the Articles of Confederation had to be unanimous - in the Constitution, amendment is affected by three fourths of the states.
The powers of the Congress are tempered by the creation of two other branches of the government - the executive, embodied in the President and Vice President, to carry out the laws passed by Congress; and the judiciary, in the form of the Supreme Court and other inferior courts, to interpret the laws passed by Congress. This separation of power was designed to ensure that no one branch accumulated too much power, and a system of checks and balances was created to provide remedies to abuses of power.