On November 19, 2002, two Senate aides found an historical rarity as they were cleaning storage rooms in the basement of the capitol building. They worked to get everything moved prior to the demolition for the building of the underground Capitol Visitors Center.
Remember, Congress approved the Capitol Visitors Center commemorative coins to help fund the building of the underground visitors center with Public Law 106-126 on December 6, 1999. Three different coins were minted: the gold five dollar, the silver dollar and the clad half dollar. Proceeds from the US Mint’s sale of the coins in 2001, $35 from the gold, $10 from the silver and $3 from the half, were applied to the construction costs of the Capitol Visitors Center project.
As the aides were clearing the storage room, they found an old ledger. At first, they were unsure of the ledger’s authenticity, and they did not immediately realize the age and the value of the historical document.
Take a look at the first written page in the book:
The first paragraph reads, “This book, containing schedules of compensation to Senators of the United States, was opened by Samuel A. Otis, the first Secretary of the Senate, at the first session of the second Congress, October 24th, 1791. It contains also the compensation of Senators for the 1st Congress.”
Amazing. This is the era of the founding fathers and the first few sessions of Congress. You can find the old Senate ledger digitized online at the Senate’s web site.
Early in the book, the ledger shows the amounts paid to the early Senators for their commute. They were compensated up to 20 miles per day at $0.30 per mile. In addition it shows the Senators’ compensation for the number of days they attended at $6 per day.
One gentleman, Aaron Burr of New York, was compensated for a total of $28.50 for 95 miles during the first session, second Congress held in Philadelphia, October 24, 1791. In addition, he was paid a sum of $228 for 38 days, October 24th through the 30th of November 1791. For the 31 days in December, Mr. Burr was paid $186.
But, what do these dollars equate to in today’s money?
First, those 95 miles at $28.50 would be $672 in today’s funds. Is that a fair number? Travel was time-consuming in those days. Similarly, their $6 per day equals $141 in today’s dollars.
For his time and travel, mostly November and December 1791, Mr. Burr earned $10,400 in today’s dollars.
Would those payments be sufficient to offset the time they were away from their businesses and their livelihoods to support their families?
Regardless of that rhetorical question, it’s interesting to have found such a national treasure in this simple ledger from 1791.