Skip Content
U.S. Flag

Salary Storm

March 19, 1816

Old Ledger Page

Angry town hall meetings! Protestors in the street! Attacks by a partisan press! It must be 1816.

Consider having your salary level tied to the market price of wheat. The framers of the Constitution considered that proposal when struggling with the sensitive issue of congressional pay. In 1789 Congress decided to pay senators and representatives $6 for each day they attended a session. Before long, senators insisted that they deserved a higher rate of pay than House members. This would reflect senators’ stricter constitutional requirements for office, as well as their weighty responsibilities in advising and consenting. The House refused to take that idea seriously—but did agree that someday senators might get $7.

Twenty-seven years later, with cost of living doubled, members still received $6 a day. This “pitiful sum,” complained Kentucky’s Richard Mentor Johnson, “might induce a lounging lout to come here,” but certainly would not attract a gentleman. He argued that members deserved at least the salary of a good government clerk, which would attract talent and give the poor man a chance to serve. Opponents feared that higher pay would attract scoundrels, not statesmen. South Carolina’s Benjamin Huger calculated such a salary to be just “about sufficient to . . . excite the avarice of [a] . . . third rate county court lawyer.”

In March 1816 Congress boldly passed the compensation act, abandoning the $6 per diem in favor of an annual salary of $1500. The result? Outrage!

As the years passed, members became increasingly dissatisfied with their rates of pay.  On March 19, 1816, they voted to abandon the six-dollar daily rate, which had amounted to about $900 a year for those who attended regularly, in favor of a $1,500 annual salary.  Supporters reasoned that this would make Congress more efficient because members would be less likely to prolong sessions to pile up more daily salary.

It began in the press. Editors charged Congress with “wanton extravagance.” Angry public meetings sprang up. Hostile citizens in Georgia hanged their senators in effigy. No one was spared. As New Jersey’s Lewis Condit bitterly complained, “I have been dismissed for voting for the bill, one of my colleagues for voting against it; and another one for not voting at all.”

Thomas Jefferson, safe in retirement, predicted that “almost the entire mass [of Congress] will go out” with the next election. He was right. A number of senators and two-thirds of the House fell victim to the outrage. Those who survived did so only by promising to repeal the infamous “fifteen-hundred-dollar law.”

Why such a violent reaction? Perhaps it was the exceptionally cold weather of 1816, or the lingering economic effects of war with Britain. A combative press certainly fanned the flames of disapproval. As Richard Johnson sadly concluded, the “poor compensation bill excited more discontent than the alien [and] sedition laws, the quasi war with France, the internal taxes of 1798, . . . the late war with Great Britain, the Treaty of Ghent, or any [other] measure of the Government” since 1789.

Frightened “by the angry growls of their constituents,” in the words of New Hampshire’s Jeremiah Mason, Congress repealed the law. Members dutifully accepted $6 a day. Nearly four decades would pass, until 1855, before senators and representatives finally received an annual salary. What did they get? $3,000 – roughly equivalent to the salary of a good government clerk.