TOPICS > Politics

Saving Senate History

November 25, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: Last week, two days before a sub-basement storage room in the United States Capitol was to be demolished to make way for a new visitors’ center, two Senate staffers took one last look around and discovered an extraordinary artifact of American history.

In fact, it’s an entire volume of history, a handwritten ledger containing the compensation records of every United States Senator from 1791 to 1881. Among the names of Senators: Virginia’s James Monroe, who later became the nation’s fifth President, and Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris, who actually had wanted the nation’s Capitol located along the banks of the Delaware River.

At the Capitol today, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Senate historian Richard Baker displayed the discovery, carefully handing it with white gloves.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Here’s the most remarkable part. For the first several Congresses before the secretary of the Senate could actually pay Senators, he had to get the Vice President of the United States, the President of the Senate, or the President pro tem of the Senate to sign the payroll.

TERENCE SMITH: And so at the bottom of each ledger entry, we find the historic signatures of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: It may well be the only document in existence that bears the signature of all three of those giants of American history. It is literally priceless.

TERENCE SMITH: Congress moved to Washington, D.C., in 1800, but the records contained in the ledger date back to the very first Congress in New York, and for the ten years that followed in Philadelphia. Clearly marked is the six dollars a day a Senator was paid for each day he attended a session of Congress.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on the book and its discovery, we’re joined by Richard Baker, the United States’ Senate historian. Mr. Baker, welcome — not only to you, but to your wonderful book that you’ve brought with you. This is sort of the front first page here?

RICHARD A. BAKER, U.S. Senate Historian: When the two people who discovered this in the storeroom called and said we think we have something, and I went over immediately to take a look, and this is what I saw, this first page. I originally thought that perhaps it was a facsimile, some sort of ceremonial document that it was just going to be thrown out as trash. And I saw that, there was no question, this was something we didn’t know existed.

TERENCE SMITH: Were you excited?

RICHARD A. BAKER: We’re very excited, still excited; might last for weeks.

TERENCE SMITH: And this wonderful book was almost thrown out?


TERENCE SMITH: In this process as described?

RICHARD A. BAKER: Because the word was that anything left in the storeroom was going to be thrown out, and the custodians — the people who were assigned to the storeroom — basically said we don’t know of anything down there, go ahead. Now various people in the architect of the Capitol’s office as well as the staff that you showed earlier in the clip sort of thought wait a minute, this can’t be right, because not only was there this book but there were also 59 others, equally glorious in their binding that basically were the successor volumes to this one. But this is where the action is.

TERENCE SMITH: So you raced over — from wherever you were — to see it and what did do you?

RICHARD A. BAKER: Well, it was about 6 o’clock at night and I’ve heard too many horror stories about well we’ll come back the next morning and pick it up, we better get it right now. So we had some good people from the office of the Senate Curator who got a flatbed truck and we moved it literally up elevators and around the corner and sort of into the old Supreme Court chamber where they met in 1800. Sort of ironic, because this is a book that was in that chamber when it was the meeting place of the Senate in 1801, for record keeping purposes. And it was back in there for safe keeping.

TERENCE SMITH: Senator Daschle referred to it, understandably, as priceless. Is there any way to project the value of a book like this that has these extraordinary signatures in it?

RICHARD A. BAKER: I don’t think there’s any way at all. What book would have, between two covers, the original signatures of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun, and so forth and so on? No. It really is priceless.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Now let’s talk about what’s in it, because I know that, it basically lays outs, as it says here, the schedules of compensation to the Senators of the United States. And the $6 a day was referred to before. That’s what they received when it was in session?

RICHARD A. BAKER: That’s right.

TERENCE SMITH: Any idea what that would be worth today?

RICHARD A. BAKER: There’s a lot of speculation about that, and economists say well if you add 2 percent a year since 1791 you’re talking big dollars, maybe $400,000 or more.

TERENCE SMITH: And Senators today get paid?

RICHARD A. BAKER: $150,000 a year. Of course they’re here full time and they have staffs and support and all of that. These people were expected to drop their livelihood, go off to the nation’s Capitol for three or four five months and then go back home and pick it up again, and they had to live on that $6 a day. So I think it was a rough life, and there was a lot of turnover among members. Some didn’t even serve out their full six-year term. In fact, in these early days the entire membership of the Senate would often turn over in twelve years.

TERENCE SMITH: It shows you the intimacy of the government at this time, that all the accounts could be kept from the United States Senate, in this book.

RICHARD A. BAKER: That’s right. And they had at that time, 1791, 28 members. And it’s a small operation — mom and pop almost. And then as you turn these pages, heading past the Civil War and onto 1881, you realize it’s no longer mom and pop any more and there are no longer 28, there are 76 and it’s no longer primarily agrarian country, it’s an industrial country, and you see this reflected in the kind of accounts that are kept in this book.

TERENCE SMITH: What did you learn about the history of the Senate and whatnot that you didn’t know when you looked into this book?

RICHARD A. BAKER: I think this provides additional examples of things that we suspected. We didn’t know about the mechanism of pay. We knew what they made per day, but we didn’t know if a person was sick on the way to the Capitol, did he get paid for being sick? The answer is yes, there was one fellow who was sick for 28 days, so he got his stipend for 28 days.

TERENCE SMITH: Now here’s an extraordinary note that show as little bit of tension, I gather, between the executive and legislative branches. What’s this?

RICHARD A. BAKER: I was paging through this the other day and I came to a screeching halt in the year 1833, where there’s a note written in by a Treasury Department official saying to the Senate you’ve overdrawn your account, you owe us about $5,000 more. And I thought, why would they do this, because this did not appear earlier in the book and didn’t appear later. Then all of a sudden the light bulb went on. This is when there was a huge battle between the White House, under Andrew Jackson, and the Senate controlled by a different party.

And the Senate went so far as to censure Andrew Jackson, a made up punishment, because of their war over the bank of the United States. And all of a sudden we see the chastisement by this Treasury official of the Senate. So kind of a subtle reminder that who’s boss here, who thinks he’s boss.

TERENCE SMITH: So he was getting back at them and saying you owe us $5,900. Send the money back.

RICHARD A. BAKER: We want it back immediately.

TERENCE SMITH: It’s just extraordinary. Can you explain to people, put this in some sort of context as to just how important it is, as you deal with these records all the time.

RICHARD A. BAKER: There is nothing that comes remotely close in the archives of the Senate. This book captures 90 years of the life of an organism that starts small and grows big. And, as I say, as I mentioned, the signatures of those Vice Presidents through time. The concern, with misplacing an extra half dollar. The huge fight when the members of Congress tried to raise their salaries in 1815, and again in the 1850s.

And then they wanted to raise it to an annual salary from a daily salary. There was a huge uproar, members were defeated, in the next session they dropped it back down to a daily rate again.

TERENCE SMITH: There’s some irony in this, I know, that just before they went out last week they managed to pass themselves a pay raise of about $4,000.

RICHARD A. BAKER: It’s been very touchy business right from that very first $6 a day.

TERENCE SMITH: Finally very briefly, will it go on display?


TERENCE SMITH: When and where will people be able to see it?

RICHARD A. BAKER: They will be able to see it in the Capitol visitors center which opens in the year 2005, which will be three stories underground in front of the Capitol on the front side, ironically probably about ten or fifteen yards from where this book was hidden away, unbeknownst to all of us for a good 40 years.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s absolutely terrific. Richard Baker, thank you so much.

RICHARD A. BAKER: Thank you.