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Financial corruption and a return to founding principles

George Washington
(Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
circa 1789: George Washington (1732 – 1799), the 1st President of the United States of America. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

These days, few news cycles pass without another report of financial corruption in the federal government. Last week, ProPublica reported that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) dumped $1.6 million worth of stocks after receiving a classified coronavirus briefing, before the market crashed in late February 2020.

But he is far from the only politician to capitalize on his privileged position. With corruption such a pervasive part of our political system, we’ve lost sight of the principle that officials are supposed to serve the people, not their own bottom lines. A return to founding principles is long overdue.

Between 2004 and 2010, politicians outperformed the market by 20 percent. High-ranking Republicans did even better, “beating the market by a whopping 35 percent.” The problem isn’t confined to Congress. In late September, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that 131 federal judges violated the law and judicial ethics guidelines by overseeing court cases with companies in which they or their family owned stock. The financial rot inside the system is pervasive and not limited to one branch of government. 

Very little about 18th century moral code can be applied to 2021. But in 1789, Americans expected public office to be a sacrifice, not an opportunity for profit. That concept has been lost. 

The framers of the Constitution expected only the best men would serve — meaning men who were well educated, experienced, from upstanding families and of high moral caliber. Naturally, these men tended to possess independent wealth. 

Just to be sure, Congress established relatively low salaries for federal office. The president was the one exception at $25,000 per year. But that significant sum had to cover the costs of state dinners, labor in the President’s House, transportation and more. George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson found it nearly impossible to meet the social and diplomatic demands of the office without going beyond their salary.

The public expectations about sacrifice often matched the reality of other higher office. In the 1790s, the department secretaries earned $3,500 per year, which amounts to about $109,000 today. Yet many department secretaries quickly discovered that the income was insufficient to cover their housing and entertaining costs in Philadelphia, as well as maintain their families and estates back home. After a few years in service, many secretaries found themselves in debt and returning to private practice or enterprise to provide for their family.

The low income and intense requirements of the office also posed challenges for presidents seeking to fill vacancies. In 1795, Washington asked six potential candidates to serve as the next secretary of state with no luck, before finally settling on a promotion for Timothy Pickering, the secretary of war. 

Despite the burdens imposed by office, politicians were careful to adhere to the social norms of sacrifice. Indeed, many officials bent over backwards to avoid any hint of impropriety. Washington famously refused a salary during his service as commander in chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and kept meticulous records of his expenses for reimbursement.

Another famous example occurred in 1797, when Alexander Hamilton published the Reynolds Pamphlet. That summer, newspaper editor James Callender published a series of reports accusing Hamilton of engaging in speculative ventures while serving as secretary of the Treasury. Two months later, Hamilton published a pamphlet defending himself against any charges of improper speculation. Instead, he explained that his “real crime [was] an amorous connection” with a woman named Maria Reynolds. The funds in question had been delivered to her husband in response to blackmail threats, not diverted from Treasury funds as Callender suggested.

In this case, Hamilton doesn’t offer the best example of morality, but his desire to avoid any hint of financial impropriety is commendable (even if his efforts went farther than his wife no doubt would have liked). We should expect officials today to be just as eager to avoid financial malfeasance. We elect them to represent our interests, and we expect judges to oversee the justice system, not to thwart it. 

To be sure, there are downsides to the idea of public service as a sacrifice. In 1789, only the wealthiest men could afford to run for office or serve for extended tenures. Many of the same limitations apply today. Campaigns are expensive and often boosted by candidates’ personal funds. Government salaries are certainly above average, but far less than talented individuals could make in private industry. 

Those structural impediments often dissuade single parents, people of color and individuals with significant school debt from running for office, even if they would make fantastic public servants. And yet, while structural inequalities make it harder for many people to run for public office, the least we can do is demand that our officials honor the trust placed in them. In this case, the founding generation provides a helpful guide.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and scholar in residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. She is also the author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution” and can be followed on Twitter @lmchervinsky.

Tags Alexander Hamilton corruption charges George Washington Richard Burr

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