A 19th-cen­tury po­lit­i­cal scan­dal, com­plete with al­le­ga­tions of fake news

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - ROBERT MITCHELL robert.mitchell@wash­post.com Ex­cerpted from wash­ing­ton­post.com/news/ retropo­lis

A smok­ing gun. Al­le­ga­tions of fake news. Ad­ver­sar­ial press cov­er­age that made it im­pos­si­ble for em­bar­rassed law­mak­ers to sweep a scan­dal un­der the rug.

The po­lit­i­cal sen­sa­tion that came to be known as the Credit Mo­bilier scan­dal un­folded in the era of the tele­graph and the steam en­gine. But it in­cluded ele­ments of ev­ery Wash­ing­ton scan­dal, from Teapot Dome and Water­gate to White­wa­ter and the al­le­ga­tions that the Trump cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sia.

The 19th-cen­tury scan­dal touched a breath­tak­ing ros­ter of lu­mi­nar­ies, in­clud­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Schuyler Col­fax and fu­ture Pres­i­dent James A. Garfield. Many of those in­volved de­nied any wrong­do­ing, only to be ex­posed as liars by con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

The story be­gan in the win­ter of 1868, three years af­ter the South had sur­ren­dered at Ap­po­mat­tox and an as­sas­sin’s bul­let had claimed the life of Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln. Congress and Lin­coln’s suc­ces­sor, An­drew John­son, bat­tled over Re­con­struc­tion and the rights of freed slaves. One at­tempt to im­peach John­son had failed; an­other would soon prove suc­cess­ful.

As John­son and Rad­i­cal Repub­li­cans skir­mished, Rep. Oakes Ames (R-Mass.) was fend­ing off the claims of a fel­low rail­road in­vestor, who was pes­ter­ing him for more shares in Credit Mo­bilier, the highly lu­cra­tive, oddly named con­struc­tion sub­sidiary of the Union Pa­cific Rail­road.

Henry S. McComb, like Ames an in­vestor in the Union Pa­cific and Credit Mo­bilier, protested that he was en­ti­tled to more Credit Mo­bilier shares. Ames, known as the “King of Spades” be­cause of his fam­ily’s fa­mous shovel-mak­ing busi­ness, re­buffed ev­ery ap­proach from McComb — and fi­nally put his rea­sons to pa­per in three damn­ingly can­did let­ters that be­came the smok­ing gun of the scan­dal.

Ames was of­fer­ing sweet­heart stock deals, sell­ing Credit Mo­bilier shares at prices well be­low their real value to his col­leagues on Capi­tol Hill. He claimed to McComb that he had no stock to spare be­cause he needed all he pos­sessed to pro­mote the Union Pa­cific’s in­ter­ests on Capi­tol Hill.

Ju­di­cious place­ment of Credit Mo­bilier shares, Ames told McComb, would help pro­tect the rail­road by pro­vid­ing key law­mak­ers with an own­er­ship in­ter­est in a com­pany whose prof­itabil­ity de­pended on the fi­nan­cial health of its par­ent com­pany.

“We want more friends in this Congress,” Ames con­fided in one of his let­ters to McComb, “& if a man will look into the law, (& it is dif­fi­cult to get them to do so un­less they have an in­ter­est to do so,) he can­not help be­ing con­vinced that we should not be in­ter­fered with.”

More than four years later, the cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Ames and McComb be­came pub­lic knowl­edge af­ter an ex­posé by the New York Sun. Three con­gres­sional com­mit­tees — two in the House and one in the Se­nate — in­ves­ti­gated the scan­dal. Ames and two other mem­bers of Congress — Rep. James Brooks (D-N.Y.) and Sen. James Pat­ter­son (R-N.H.) — faced calls for ex­pul­sion.

Ap­pear­ing at the height of the 1872 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, the Sun’s ex­posé was ini­tially dis­missed as phony by many Repub­li­can-lean­ing news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing the New York Times, be­cause it ap­peared in a pa­per no­to­ri­ous for its out­spo­ken crit­i­cism of Pres­i­dent Ulysses S. Grant’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. The Sun also vastly over­stated the num­ber of shares sold to law­mak­ers.

But lead­ing con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans rec­og­nized the se­ri­ous­ness and un­der­ly­ing va­lid­ity of the al­le­ga­tions. House Speaker James G. Blaine or­ches­trated the ap­point­ment of a five-mem­ber in­ves­tiga­tive com­mit­tee that be­gan tak­ing tes­ti­mony in se­cret.

Ames de­nied he was guilty of bribery be­cause he never specif­i­cally asked his as­so­ci­ates to sup­port the Union Pa­cific. But he ad­mit­ted that he was cul­ti­vat­ing sup­port for the rail­road by sell­ing the stock to his col­leagues.

“I have found,” he ex­plained, “that there is no dif­fi­culty in in­duc­ing men to look af­ter their own prop­erty.”

The se­cret pro­ceed­ings pro­duced a back­lash that forced the House to open them to the press and the pub­lic. One law­maker af­ter an­other de­nied own­ing or prof­it­ing from Credit Mo­bilier stock.

Col­fax, who was speaker of the House when Ames was sell­ing shares, ad­mit­ted he had put $500 down for the stock but claimed the deal was never con­sum­mated. Pat­ter­son made a sim­i­lar claim. “I never re­ceived, di­rectly or in­di­rectly, nor did any­one ever hold for me in trust, one penny’s worth of stock of the Credit Mo­bilier,” the New Hamp­shire se­na­tor de­clared.

Ap­palled and an­gry, Ames re­turned to the in­ves­ti­gat­ing com­mit­tee with doc­u­men­ta­tion of stock sales and div­i­dend pay­ments. Pat­ter­son, a for­mer school­teacher, squirmed anx­iously “like one of the poor delin­quents he used to tor­ture” as he ad­mit­ted he bought shares. Col­fax con­tin­ued to deny own­ing Credit Mo­bilier shares even af­ter Ames pro­duced records that showed a $1,200 div­i­dend pay­ment.

Nev­er­the­less, de­spite weeks of sear­ing head­lines and ed­i­to­ri­als, the House was in no mood to take dras­tic ac­tion. The in­ves­tiga­tive com­mit­tee rec­om­mended the ex­pul­sion of Ames and Brooks but pro­posed no sanc­tion against any of the law­mak­ers who bought Credit Mo­bilier stock. Even that penalty was too se­vere for the House, which ended up cen­sur­ing, rather than ex­pelling, Ames and Brooks.

Law­mak­ers were an­grier at the press than at their col­leagues who dab­bled in Credit Mo­bilier. Rep. Ben­jamin But­ler (R-Mass.), speak­ing in de­fense of Ames, de­nounced news­pa­pers for act­ing as if “all pu­rity as well as all knowl­edge resided in the edi­tors of news­pa­pers, and none in the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the peo­ple.”

When he de­clared with a flour­ish that “I am a man that God made, not the news­pa­pers,” the House erupted in laugh­ter and ap­plause.

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