April 18, 1906
Early in the afternoon of April 18, 1906, senators received a message by telegraph that a massive earthquake had, that morning, turned San Francisco and its surrounding areas into a zone of unimaginable human suffering.
The Senate promptly suspended other business and proposed an emergency appropriation of $500,000 for the War Department to provide necessary supplies and transportation. This figure was pure guesswork. As one Capitol Hill observer wrote, "Description of the catastrophe from this distance and with the fragmentary information sent out from the panic-crazed community can give but meager comprehension of the situation." A clerk carried the Senate-passed legislation to the House chamber. There, members doubled the figure and enacted it unanimously without a word of debate. Within three hours of its introduction, the $1 million funding bill received the signature of President Theodore Roosevelt
In the Senate, several wealthy members, including California's senior senator, George Perkins, promised to personally guarantee the War Department's spending for emergency relief in the event that the congressional appropriation failed to cover what was needed. Utah senator Reed Smoot instructed his banker to telegraph $5,000 from his personal account to San Francisco. On the following day, news from San Francisco grew worse. Medical supplies at military depots had been totally destroyed. A California correspondent reported, "Every boat from [San Francisco] is crowded with hungry and penniless refugees. Fifty or one-hundred-thousand people will be cast on Oakland temporarily. Can't Congress do something at once to provide temporary relief?"
Indeed, as the toll of dead climbed to nearly 3,000, Congress responded to further requests with unusual speed. This allowed President Theodore Roosevelt to decline offers of aid from other countries. Speaking in a tone that suggested an exaggerated sense of national pride and independence, the president declared, "There is no need for assistance from outside our own borders."
Testifying days later before a Senate committee, Secretary of War William Howard Taft confessed that his department had committed to an expenditure of $1.5 million in emergency relief aid, without seeking congressional authorization. "If I am guilty of an impeachable offense in connection with this disaster, I shall crave your endorsement of my course." Speaking with the assurance of legislative generosity in times of national emergency, the committee chairman quietly responded, "Congress will acquit you."