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 a series of 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.
Months of headlines and indignant editorials reflected anxieties about the reach of corporate power in Congress and the ethical climate on Capitol Hill — issues that would help define American politics through the rest of the 19th century and remain relevant today.
“The Credit Mobilier stock speculation shows that corruption does exist in high places,” the Lincoln County Herald, a Missouri newspaper, warned in December 1872. Without vigilance by the public, “the first we know we’ll have been sold out to some giant railroad or other monied monopoly.”
The scoop by the cantankerous Sun filled the entire front page of the four-page paper and appeared under the headline “The King of Frauds” (a play on Ames’s nickname). The story consisted largely of transcribed testimony by McComb in a lawsuit he filed against Ames and Credit Mobilier in pursuit of additional shares. Toward the end of the piece, McComb revealed the existence of Ames’s letters and a list he compiled of congressmen he claimed had been the beneficiaries of shares from the Massachusetts lawmaker.
Appearing at the height of the 1872 presidential campaign, the Sun’s exposé was initially dismissed as phony by many Republican-leaning newspapers — particularly because it appeared in paper notorious for its outspoken criticism of President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. “The charge appeared originally in the Sun, which is prima facie evidence that it is a lie,” scoffed the New York Times, which supported Grant and the Republicans.
Serious mistakes (the Sun vastly overstated the number of shares sold to lawmakers) and overt bias (no voter “who has any respect for the honor of his country . . . will by his vote aid to maintain these men in place and power,” the Sun said) made it easier for the Times and other newspapers to wave off the Sun’s exclusive. But leading congressional Republicans recognized the seriousness and underlying validity of the allegations. To stay ahead of the scandal, House Speaker James G. Blaine orchestrated the appointment of a five-member investigative committee that began taking testimony in secret.
Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by the closed-door proceedings, Ames doubled down on his explanation for selling the stock. He 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.”
If the hearings had remained closed to the public, Ames’s candor might have escaped notice. But the secret proceedings produced a backlash that forced the House to open them to the press and the public. Newspapers published transcripts of the closed-door hearings — including Ames’s testimony — just as the members implicated in the scandal began to testify, with reporters hanging on their every word.
Not surprisingly, one lawmaker after another went to great lengths to deny 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.
The protestations of innocence — contrasted with Ames’s frankness — prompted the Times to reevaluate its initial skepticism. The paper remained convinced that most of the congressmen implicated in the scandal were innocent of wrongdoing. But the same could not be said of Ames. “His motives,” the Times clucked, “seem to have been far from pure.”
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.
Ames’s detailed testimony, the New York Tribune concluded, showed that “a number of Congressmen have liberally made false statements about their connection with Credit Mobilier, either from a sense of wrongdoing or from a cowardly fear of public opinion. The position of these congressmen,” the Tribune added, “is deplorable.”
The Times abandoned its initial disdain. It “is the plain duty of Congress to visit with punishment all who took Credit Mobilier stock from Oakes Ames,” the paper editorialized. At the very least, the Times thundered, a “resolution of severe censure” was warranted.
Nevertheless, despite weeks of searing editorials and headlines, 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.
Read more Retropolis: