1816 Food Fight Over Congressional Salaries

Most of our Founding Fathers were, if not wealthy by the standards of the late 1700s. There were few, if any paupers, amongst them. They saw service in the new government as both a duty and a privilege, not a source of income.

However, paradoxically, there was a view that members of the Senate had “weightier” responsibilities than those of the House. This was the heart of the debate in 1789 when both the Senate and House compromised on a wage of $6/day for when Congress was in session. Someday, the members agreed Senators might be paid $7/day.

However, 250 years later in the 21st Century, the political issues have pretty much stayed the same, but the context around which they are viewed changed. Take the cost of living. It seems to always increase, for whatever reason.

Flash back to 1816 and citizens living in the United States faced the same problem. As the economy grew and the nation became more prosperous, so did the cost of living.

The country had changed, and the demands on members of Congress had changed. Back in the beginning, being a member of Congress could was considered by many as a part-time job through which the wealthy contributed. This notion came from England where the nobility/landed gentry considered it their duty to be a member of Parliament. By 1816, the average number of days Congress was in session had jumped from 60 to 70, to over 150.

In other words, if a Senator or member of the House was in Washington, D.C. for every session, he was spending almost a half a year serving the country. At $6/day, he was making $900 (~$20,214 in 2024)!

To many Congressmen, they felt they had talents they could use to make a good living and needed to be fairly compensated for their time. Thus, they should be paid enough to make it attractive to attract the “best and brightest” to follow them into public service.

On the other side of the coin, some argued that if the per diem was raised, members of Congress would stretch out the number of sessions to increase the number of days and the amount they were paid. Another argument was that the country would have to raise taxes if it paid the members of Congress more money.

Nonetheless, in 1816, Congress voted itself an annual salary of $1,500 (~$33,691 in 2024). The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. In almost every state, there were protests, threats, and town hall meetings where the local Representative or Senator was denounced. Several members of Congress were hung in effigy.

Thomas Jefferson, who had been out of office since 1808, predicted that almost every member of Congress would not return to office if the salary was not granted. Lewis Condit, a representative from New Jersey lamented that “I have been dismissed for voting for the bill, one of my colleagues for voting against it and one for not voting at all!” Joseph Desha, a representative from Kentucky, was the only Democratic-Republican who voted against the bill. He was the only one of six from his state who was re-elected.

The reaction against the new salary was so strong that Congress repealed the new law and compensation went back to $6/day. It was not until 1855 that members of Congress received a salary of $3,000/year or about $109,204 in 2024 dollars.

Today, the salary for Congressmen and women is $174,000. The Speaker of the House receives $223,500 and the Majority leaders in both houses and the President pro Tempore of the Senate each receive $193,400.

1908 Katherine Heim painting of Joseph Desha, the only one of the Kentucky delegation that voted against the Compensation Act of 1816 and the only one of six to retain his seat in the next election.

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