Today’s blog post comes from David J. Gerleman, assistant editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln’s two-year stint as a Illinois Whig congressman is one of the lesser-known periods of his eventful life. Had he remained in obscurity, it might have remained the crowning achievement of a fizzled frontier political career.
Having been tasked with looking through the records of the 30th Congress for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, I have gotten to know Congressman Lincoln intimately. Well over a year was spent sorting through the sea of papers generated by Congress for the years 1847–49: handwritten draft bills, printed amended bills, engrossed bills, resolutions, joint resolutions, simple motions, yea and nay journals, petitions, letters, committee papers—all these and more had to be searched for traces of Lincoln. Among the wealth of congressional materials were volumes dedicated to recording minute expenses, such as the cost of firewood, stationary, and glue. There were records of how much paper folders, messengers, and cleaning women were paid, yet one vital component was missing—Lincoln’s pay and mileage records.
Ironically, it was Lincoln’s great rival, Stephen A. Douglas, who helped set off an intense search for pay records of the 30th Congress. While hunting through an odd cache of files in the Auditors of the Treasury Records in pursuit of a Lincoln document involving “Coffee Mill Guns,” I stumbled across a handful of Douglas’s Senate pay vouchers from 1848. This small discovery reignited my hope that other Treasury records might yield up the elusive congressional pay files; thus began a test of archival digging that all dedicated historical researchers know well.
One of the first hurdles to be surmounted was to reconstruct the process of exactly how members of Congress were paid in the 19th century; once that was achieved, a feat of reverse engineering might point to where the pay records might have ended up.
This was not an easy task—even the House Historian’s Office could not say with exactitude how the process worked as the 1840s are a known gap for the Clerk’s disbursement reports. The records of the Committee on Expenses and the Committee on Mileage were either barren or mentioned member pay in passing—it was only by pursing numerous false starts and dead-ends did I began to piece together the outline for how the House compensated its members.
Congressional pay was based on a per diem basis stemming from an 1818 law by which members received $8 per day and $8 per 20 miles traveled to and from their districts. However, the legislation did not specify the shortest route, a fact later prompting investigation when former member-turned-newspaperman Horace Greeley publicly reproached members for taking less-than-direct routes home.
To set the congressional funding wheels in motion, the Speaker of the House periodically sent a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury asking for a set amount; the Secretary then ordered the Treasurer to issue a warrant payable to the Clerk of the House. The Speaker signed each member’s pay voucher before they were distributed by the Sergeant at Arms, who recorded all member pay and mileage information in bound journals complete with check numbers, date of issue, amounts, and miles traveled. Members “certified” their accounts by signing the journal at the close of each session.
The latter part of the puzzle was only pieced together after I ran across a small single-line entry in an overlooked section of Auditors of the Treasury records after seemingly exhausting every other viable option. Contained within several battered volumes was exactly the information I had been searching for: Lincoln’s official signed pay and mileage records.
What made this find exciting was to see that these Sergeant at Arms journals were, in a sense, virtual autograph books containing the signatures of the majority of House members between 1813 and 1889. The only signature missing from Lincoln’s time in the House was that of John Quincy Adams who died shortly after the 1st Session of the 30th Congress began—necessitating his remaining pay to be signed for by his estate executor.
Considering the current buzz surrounding Spielberg’s film, the discovery of these records is a timely illustration of how Lincoln’s two-year congressional stint provided him with a valuable political education on how policy and politicking functioned at the national level.
His time in Washington also brought him into contact with House and Senate members who would either fight with or against him during the Civil War, including his two Vice Presidents Hannibal Hamlin and Andrew Johnson, cabinet secretaries Simon Cameron and Caleb B. Smith, and a host of future Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis, Robert Toombs, and Alexander Stephens.
With every new discovery here at the Archives, another piece of the Lincoln puzzle is set into place—giving us a much fuller picture of the man, the politician, and the President.