capitol_building
The United States Capitol Building, showing damage inflicted by the British during the War of 1812.

In March 1816, Congress passed a Compensation Act, “which raised the pay of congressmen from six dollars per diem to a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 718-19. This was the first raise in the pay for congressmen since 1789. Id. at 719.

Robert Wright, a Congressman in 1816, and previously a United States Senator, said that in the old days, congressmen “lived like gentlemen, and enjoyed a glass of generous wine, which cannot be afforded at this time for the present compensation.” Id. quoting C. Edward Skeen, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei: The Compensation Act of 1816 and the Rise of Popular Politics,” JER, 6 (1986), 259-60.

Rather quickly, analysts and the public realized that Congress had effectively doubled its pay. Kentucky congressman Richard M. Johnson concluded that the Compensation Act brought more discontent than any other law up to that point in history. Thomas Jefferson agreed with him. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 719. Jefferson’s popularity amongst his fellow Republicans soared, as they all “resented paying taxes to pay for what seemed to be the high salaries of their public officials.” Id. citing Thomas Jefferson to De Meunier, 29 April 1795, in Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson: Federal Edition (New York, 1904), 8: 174.

The public made their outrage known. There were public meetings throughout the country, there were publications strongly criticizing Congress for its work, and in Georgia, “opponents even burned the members of Congress in effigy.” Id. at 719-20 citing Skeen, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” JER, 6 (1986), 261.

Congress’ reputation took a bit hit. Then, “[i]n the fall elections of 1816 nearly 70 percent of the Fourteenth Congress was not returned to the Fifteenth Congress.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 720.

The ordeal with the Compensation Act of 1816 was the first hint of what was to come with Americans’ behavior and perspective toward the actions of their government. Accountability became paramount. Participation became mandatory.

It seemed clear that the days were over of the government being separate from the people and conducting its business in a sort of vacuum. Americans were taking matters into their own hands and sending a clear message to elected officials: do what is best for the country and its people, or you will not be re-elected.

This is a message that is reinforced continually in American history, up to the present day. But many modern Americans may take for granted that it was not always the case. The acts of the early Americans, particularly in reaction to the Compensation Act of 1816, ensured that the country would develop opinions about the government, which in turn would lead to accountability. That accountability has inevitably served to perpetuate the health and wellbeing of the Republic.

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