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Search turns up financial records from Lincoln’s congressional career

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even Honest Abe had to fill out paperwork to collect his salary and mileage money.

Researchers with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum have tracked down records signed by Abraham Lincoln, then a member of Congress, to get his money from the federal government: $8 a day and $8 for every 20 miles he traveled to and from his home in Illinois.

The documents were found at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., by David J. Gerleman, assistant editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. Nineteenth-century pay records from the House of Representatives are scarce, but Gerleman came across an 1848 pay voucher for Lincoln rival Stephen A. Douglas while examining Treasury Department documents.

This small discovery sparked a targeted search of other treasury account records to try to pinpoint where other members’ pay files might be located, or if they even still existed.

After exhausting virtually every option, Gerleman ran across a single entry of House records in an often-overlooked section of Treasury Department records. Contained within several battered volumes was exactly the information sought: Lincoln’s official signed pay and mileage accounts, complete with check numbers, date of issue, amounts and miles travelled.

One entry shows Lincoln collected a total of $2,024 in salary for January through August of 1848 and got an additional $1,300.80 for travel. This and other Lincoln documents can be found at www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/New_Documents.htm/.

The volumes were likely kept by the House sergeant at arms, and individual members had to sign off on their accounts at the close of each session.

“I was excited to finally track down these records, and it was an extra thrill to see that these volumes contain signatures of the majority of House members from 1813 to 1889,” Gerleman said.

“Unfortunately, the 1840s are a known gap for House salary and spending information,” said Gerleman, “One of the most difficult tasks was trying to first reassemble the exact process of how members of Congress were paid during the period.”

Persistent research revealed that the speaker of the House had to request warrants through the secretary of the Treasury. The speaker signed individual pay vouchers and distributed them to members, who could cash them at the Corcoran & Riggs Bank, the only federal depository in Washington.

Representatives were paid according to an 1818 law fixing compensation at $8 a day plus $8 per 20 miles travelled. The legislation did not specify the shortest route, a fact that came under scrutiny when congressman-turned-journalist Horace Greeley publicly reproached members for taking less-than-direct routes home.

With Steven Spielberg’s film spotlighting Lincoln’s political skills and an upcoming book examining his House career, these records provide a timely link to the future president’s two years as a Whig congressman. Those years gave Lincoln a valuable education on policy and politicking at the national level. They also brought him into contact with politicians who would either fight with or against him during the Civil War, including both his vice presidents, Hannibal Hamlin and Andrew Johnson, Cabinet secretaries Simon Cameron and Caleb B. Smith and a host of future Confederate leaders.

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is a long-term documentary editing project funded in part by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and is dedicated to identifying, imaging, transcribing, annotating and publishing all documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime.

“These exciting new discoveries demonstrate the value of our careful and thorough approach,” said Director Daniel W. Stowell of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. “David Gerleman and our other colleagues are searching tens of thousands of records with incredible skill and tenacity to ensure we have the fullest possible understanding of Lincoln’s life.”

“I was very excited to learn that once again researchers have mined the National Archives to discover important documentation,” said David Ferriero, archivist of the United States. “This is just the latest of many finds by the staff of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. Their work adds to the historical record and will help future researchers develop new insights.”

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