Credit Mobilier Scandal
Congressional rules regarding the ethical conduct of Senators and Representatives began to take their modern form in the middle of the twentieth century. Standards were different in earlier times and many activities were acceptable that would be considered unethical today, but even so, there were scandals and investigations did occur.
The Credit Mobilier Scandal is one of the more famous. The project to complete the transcontinental railroad was begun in 1862, but completion of the transcontinental railroad was delayed because of the Civil War. According to Representative Oakes Ames of Massachusetts, President Lincoln told him, “That road must be built and you are the only man to do it,” and so in August 1867, Representative Ames contracted with the Union Pacific Railroad Company to build 677 miles of its road for $47 million dollars. The railroad contracts were awarded to the Credit Mobilier Company of America, a construction management company in which Ames himself was a large shareholder, and in 1869 the first U.S. transcontinental railroad came into being.
In 1872, however, a scandal broke out alleging improprieties in the sale by Ames of Credit Mobilier stock to fellow Congressmen at par value rather taking into account the estimated dividends which would justify a much higher price. Ames was accused of attempting to influence votes and decisions of his colleagues. After a congressional investigation, Ames and Representative James W. Brooks of New York were censured, but not expelled because Members held divergent views on the power of the House to expel a Member for acts committed in a preceding Congress. In the Senate, the investigating committee recommended the expulsion of Senator W. Patterson, the censure of Senator James Harlan, and the acquittal of Senators Roscoe Conkling, John A. Logan, and Henry Wilson. The Republican Caucus of Senators did not act on the recommendation of the report prior to the adjournment of the session and at a subsequent special session a resolution was adopted that declared that the failure to consider the resolution of expulsion of Senator James W. Patterson should not be interpreted as evidence of the approval or disapproval. Vice President Schuyler Colfax was also implicated due to allegations that he had received shares of Credit Mobilier stock while Speaker of the House. The committee did not report articles of impeachment, but Vice President Colfax was an unsuccessful candidate for re-nomination in 1872.
Representative John B. Alley testified before Congress that one of the most eminent lawyers of New England had said, “You and I know Mr. Ames to be a perfectly honest man; therefore I think it is your duty to go to Washington and testify on his behalf.” Alley testified that if the American people knew “all the facts, instead of bestowing upon Oakes Ames one word of censure, they would far sooner erect a monument to his name in grateful recognition of his eminent services.”
And yet Representative Luke P. Poland of Vermont, chairman of the select committee investigating the allegations against Ames, stated that Ames was guilty and recommended the adoption of a resolution expelling him from the House.
Was Ames guilty? Should he have been expelled? Search congressional publications and form your own opinion.
Publications referenced in this article
Enforcement of Congressional Rules of Conduct: An Historical Overview, CRS Reports, CRDC-ID:CRS-2008-GVF-1006, Nov. 18, 2008, LexisNexis Congressional Research Digital Collection
Pacific Railway Commission; Testimony, Vol. 7, Serial Set Digital Collection, 2508 S.exdoc.51/8, August 22, 1887; Senate Executive Document 51, Part 8 (50th Congress, 1st Session)
Matter affecting members of Senate; Charges of Bribery; Investigation Relating to Purchase of Credit Mobilier and Union Pacific Railroad Stock; Resolution to Expel James W. Patterson from Senate, Serial Set Digital Collection, 1550 S.rp.519, February 27, 1873; Senate Report 519 (42d Congress, 3rd session)
In Re Adam Clayton Powell, Serial Set Digital Collection, 12755-2 H.rp.27, February 23, 1967; House report 27 (90th Congress, 1st session)
Credit Mobilier Investigation and Affairs of Union Pacific Railroad; Testimony on Contracts and Stock of Credit Mobilier and Oakes Ames, Member of House of Representatives, Serial Set Digital Collection, 1577 H.rp.77, February 18, 1873; House Report 77 (42d Congress, 3rd session)
Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases from 1793-1972, Serial Set Digital Collection, 12935-1 S.doc.7, 1972; Senate Document 92-7
Biographical directory, American Congress, 1774-1960, Serial Set Digital Collection, 12108 H.doc.442; House Document 442 (85th Congress, Session 2), 1961
Schuyler Colfax, New York and Indiana, Grant's Vice President (1869); Speaker of House in 38th, 39th and 40th Congresses. Distinguished editor. Completely vindicated of corruption charges in 1873 Credit Mobilier scandal.
The Capitol: A Pictorial History, DOC-TYPE: Serial Set Digital Collection, 13034-6 H.doc.139, 1973
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