- Historic Sites
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
The techniques were depressingly familiar and followed the pattern that a congressional committee, headed by James Letchner of Virginia, had uncovered in 1855 in an investigation of pressures brought by Samuel Colt, Cyrus McCormick, and others to prevent a change in the patentextension act. They were unsuccessful but only after exhausting every effort. McCormick, for example, had hired a number of journalists to write letters to Congress and to plant news stories favorable to him in the daily press. Colt went further; he passed out dozens of specially produced revolvers in the House and Senate, “enticed” at least one representative with a “loan” of ten thousand dollars, and hired three comely ladies known as the Spiritualists to spend their evenings “moving with the members” of the House. Asked about this last maneuver during the Letchner hearings, a witness replied that spiritualism was widely practiced in the city, but she could not say with certainty that one of Colt’s ladies possessed any spiritual powers. “I think,” the witness testified, “she was more material.”
Despite the clear evidence that lobbying might well be out of control, the Letchner Committee—and subsequent investigators in the aftermath of the Civil War—made no solid recommendations to Congress for controlling the practice. Indeed, for the next thirty years blatant corruption was taken to be a concomitant of the legislative process, leading one historian to label the period “the Big Barbeque.” The Homestead Act, the Morrill Act establishing land-grant colleges, the appropriation of lands for the transcontinental railroad network, the emerging corporations’ need for tariff protection, the Reconstruction program in the South, and, at the end of the century, the territorial expansion of the nation overseas presented the lobbyists with a host of new opportunities for their old methods.
But nothing was to have a greater effect than the growth of American industry, which almost overnight produced a national market and a new power elite of corporation owners whose private fortunes were staggering in size. In the scramble for wealth and political power that marked this “age of enterprise,” the government was seen as the chief dispenser of special privilege to those who could get to Washington first with the most. The impulse was, of course, no different from that of earlier lobbyists, but the stakes were considerably higher: millions of dollars at first and then billions were at issue.
For the moment the lobbies directed their attention to familiar objects: the acquisition of land for railroads, or special legislation favorable to banking and financial interests, and the tariff. Two things, however, really set the period apart. Before the Civil War lobbyists had acted for individual entrepreneurs like Samuel Colt or Cyrus McCormick; now in the last thirty-five years of the nineteenth century they worked in behalf of monopolistic or nearmonopolistic national corporations through carefully organized, centrally directed campaigns for “the oil interests,” or “the tobacco cartel,” or “the steel interests,” and others.
Secondly, they exercised their power in such a fashion as to make the ante-bellum bribery and corruption seem like mere preliminaries, if only because the amounts of money used in the 1870’s and 1880’s were so large and the schemes for cornering the stock market or controlling huge tracts of land were so bold as to be breathtaking. Scandals such as Black Friday in September, 1869, when Jay Gould and “Jubilee Jim” Fisk attempted to gain control of the nation’s gold, and the Crédit Mobilier affair of 1872, involving the attempt to bribe members of Congress and the Grant administration with stock certificates of the Union Pacific Railway, were only the harbingers of two decades of widespread lobbying abuses.
The possibility for such excesses was considerably enhanced by a shift in the concept of representation that began just before the turn of the century and that has remained with us since. The transformation of the American economy was accompanied by a corresponding alteration of the society at large and by a proliferation of the number of special-interest groups in almost every area of American life. Where in the past a member of Congress had only to measure the dominant interest of his district or state against the interests of other districts or the nation a a whole, after 1900 it became increasingly difficult to know what that dominant interest was. In the complexity of twentieth-century America the congressman was now forced to sort out the competing factions among the people he represented before he could hope to act. As a result members of Congress came to see themselves—in political scientist Robert Getz’s term—as brokers, rather than as mere agents or trustees, mediating among the several interests within their own localities. If they were now free to act on the basis of their own judgment to an extent unknown in the past, they were now also susceptible to greater lobbying influence than they had been before.
The lobbies themselves had similarly undergone change as America entered the twentieth century. The most significant developments were two: the emergence of national associations seeking to influence legislation and—particularly after 1915—the appearance of the professional staffs in place of the free-lance lobbyists of earlier years.