Monday, May 9, 2011

Long Lost U.S. Senate Records Discovered by Rare Book Dealer

by Stephen J. Gertz

If you, concerned citizen, like I, wonder how the government was spending our money during the years 1879 - 1909 but have thus far been stymied in your efforts to get to the bottom of things, wonder no more. Fascination awaits.

The hand-written  ledgers, bound into five volumes, of the United States Senate Appropriations Committee covering those years and AWOL for who knows how long, have been found by a Northern California rare book dealer.

The ledgers, written almost exclusively in pen - both black and red ink – with some entries and notations in pencil, enumerate the annual appropriations for:

 I. Agriculture, Army, Fortifications, Pensions, Post-Office, 1870-1909.
II. Diplomatic, District of Columbia Appropriations.
III. Legislative Appropriations, 1870-1901.
IV. Military Academy, Naval Appropriations, 1870-1909.
V. Sundry Civil Appropriations, 1870-1901.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, arguably the most powerful committee in Congress, formally came into being during 1867,  its purpose to help divide the labors of the Finance Committee into the separate tasks of tax collection & disbursements.  The challenge then, as now, was keeping track of the funds when issued. In other words, who got what, where's the beef, where's the pork?

The entries are listed in exquisite detail, each volume collating to 546 - 896 pages divided into numbered double-page spreads. A note within the Diplomatic ledger indicates that there was a sixth volume, alas, missing, concerned with Indians and Deficiencies.

Some interesting entries:

• The President was paid $25,000 annually between 1870 and 1873. In 1874 that figure jumped to $50,000. The Vice-President was paid $8,000, the same as the Secretaries of State, Treasury, War, Navy and the Interior.

• $85,000 was allocated for wrapping-twine in 1886, an increase of $30,000 over the previous eight years. The wrapping-twine industry lobbyists were, apparently, busy that year. Or, the Senate was unusually active wrapping Christmas gifts during the holidays.

• Between 1894 and 1901, $25,000 was allocated for payment of rewards for the detection, arrest, and conviction of post office burglars and robbers - the good ol' days when "going postal" referred to miscreants, not employees.

• $10,000 was allocated for the “purchase of certain books and records of the late, so called, Confederate Government.”

•  $30,000 was allocated to investigate “alleged outrages in the Southern States” - presumably lynchings but the notes are unclear - and $50,000 to investigate senatorial elections in Kansas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

• Pension allocations for veterans of the War of 1812, the Mexican War, bronze medals for the veterans of the Spanish-American War, the erection of cemeteries and monuments for these wars. Curiously, none are noted for the Civil War, perhaps too close in time and painful memory.

• In 1882-83 $5,000 was allocated for an experiment lighting naval vessels with electricity, and allocations were made in 1898-99 for the purchase of modern electric machinery and appliances at West Point.

•  Between 1886 and 1893, $15,000 was allocated to turn cast-iron ordnance into steel-lined, breech loading, torpedo howitzers for throwing high explosives. $250,000 was allocated in 1897 for “testing methods of throwing high explosives from guns on ships.”

• In 1906  $20,000 was budgeted to mark the graves of soldiers and sailors buried on the isle St. Michel, known as ‘Crab Island’, Lake Champlain, who died at the Battle of Plattsburgh, September 11, 1814.

• $385,000 was allocated for building the naval station at Guantanamo, Cuba in 1904-05; $735,000 for the naval station at Cavite, Philippine Islands; and $862,395 for the station at Olongapo, Philippine Islands.

• But only $23,500 was allocated for government costs associated with annexing Hawaii on July 7, 1898.

• There is a curious allocation [Ledger III, O307] of $2,000 for the Committee on Alcohol in the Arts. Not quite funding for NPR but nice to know that Congress was paying attention to cultural affairs - though probably via artful showgirls and free-flowing champagne. It was undoubtedly  a popular and coveted committee assignment.

• Entry O197 in Ledger III notes an indefinite sum to be allocated for the “Suffering Poor of India," which, bizarrely, was a part of Naval appropriations. I smell a buried earmark to thwart the Anti-Suffering Poor of India bloc.

• Ledger IV, Diplomatic Appropriations, notes $1,929,819 allocated to pay British subjects as  guaranteed by the treaty of May 8, 1871 between the U.S. and Great Britain.

•  Ledger IV also enumerates expenses and allocations for running the District of Columbia, including $240 allocated for the annual salary of a florist at the reform school, pollen, apparently, a necessary adjunct to the rehabilitation of incarcerated juvenile delinquents; and $5,000 allocated to the Women’s Christian Association. Other religious charities, Catholic, Christian, etc. were also funded. The wall separating church and state was porous in those days.

It would be impossible to list every interesting or odd entry.  Suffice it to say that the ledgers contain a remarkable degree of detail and an exquisite amount of information. Here are the minutiae that we taxpayers have paid for over the years – from the $326 allocated to repair cooking utensils at the Military Academy in 1890-91 to $111,820 allocated to publish the laws of the 3rd Session, 42nd Congress, 1876 and an additional $100,000 to fold those printed laws.

In short, there's enough red meat in the ledgers to keep the the modern Right and the Left chattering for years to come about Small v. Big government, waste, pork-barrel earmarks, and all manner of spending by the U.S. government during the period the ledgers cover.

The volumes were accidentally found by Vic Zoschak, proprietor of Tavistock Books in Alameda, CA.

Says Zoschak, "It has been said of eBay that almost anything can be found there at one time or another.  After my purchase of these 5 ledgers last January, 2010, I can't help but give that statement some credibility.  The seller listing them really didn't recognize them for what they were, but to be honest, nor, at the time, did I.  They just sounded 'neat', and like something on which I thought I could make a profit."

Vic Zoschak, Jr., of Tavistock Books.

His cataloger, after close examination and research, realized what a treasure the ledgers represented and suggested that Zoschak contact the National Archives. The National Archives, however, had no clue that the ledgers were missing, or indeed, that they existed in the first place.

Zoschak, a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), is in the process of donating the trove to the Library of the Senate, exactly where it should be placed, for the benefit of scholars and posterity.

In the end, perhaps the most telling ledger entry of all confirms our worst fears and reminds us that what's going on in Washington today is no different than what went on 1870 - 1909 and that climate change stops at the borders of the District of Columbia:

• $2,000 allocated for “Writs of Lunacy” in Washington, D.C.

It was surely nowhere near enough. But if a writ of lunacy were issued for every member of Congress it'd be standing room only in the asylum and nothing but room at the Capitol.


  1. Just a quick note: That Committee on Alcohol in the Arts wasn't nearly as much fun as you might think. The "Arts" were the Pharmaceutical Arts: Druggists and doctors (and distillers and brewers) were agitating for the removal of the alcohol tax for spirits used medicinally. As it turns out, the pharmacy and the doctor's office were handy (and cheap) places to buy your booze -- all the way through Prohibition, in fact!

  2. FYI--our blog post that riffs off of this:

    Great post! We hope to use these in our research.


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