Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Everything Old Is New Again (Part 1,327)

I'm going to abuse Steve's hospitality and put in a shameless plug for a (non-political) project of my own, a sesquicentennial blog covering California 150 years ago. And I'll justify it to myself (if not to you, the reader, whom I assume to be perspicacious enough to see through such a transparent pretext) with the thought that perhaps in that time there is just the faintest echo of the present day.

In 1860 the California legislature voted to authorize a comprehensive geological survey of the state, led by State Geologist Josiah Whitney. William H. Brewer, bereft by the recent loss of his wife and infant son, looking for a change of scene and a project to occupy him, signed on as botanist for the Survey. Over the next four years Brewer wrote a series of letters describing in faithful and copious detail his travels around the state.

(Which was kind of a wreck at the time, underdeveloped and fragmented, more a collection of settlements than a real state. The Civil War made everything uncertain; should it go the wrong way California would likely be on its own. The state government was perpetually broke. The roads were poor to non-existent, except in the gold country where private interests owned them and charged exorbitant tolls. And a highly vocal pro-secessionist minority was doing its best to stir up trouble.)

Over the next four years Brewer and his men covered 14,000 miles all over California, most of it on foot or muleback. (I was all the more impressed with this after I actually rode on a mule.) They contended with blistering heat and numbing cold; drought, flood, and earthquake; wild animals; and even a shipwreck.

But the most enduring hardship was money.

It begins in September, 1861:
There was an appropriation of $20,000 before we came. We expected to use but $10,000 or $15,000 this year, so got an additional appropriation of $15,000 to carry on our work this and the first part of next year....We apprehended no difficulty in getting the money as we needed it after the opening of the new year’s accounts. But at last session a transfer of over a quarter of a million was made from one fund to another, which has thrown trouble into all the machinery of state finances, depleted the treasury, and crippled us. We went without our salaries, but were promised $5,000 certainly the first of this month. The time has arrived but the money can’t be got. We have seen the Governor, the Treasurer, and others, but our only answer and consolation is: that there is no money in the treasury; that they can’t pay us until the first of December, and then but $5,000; that we are no worse off than the rest of the state officers; that the Governor and all the officers have received no salaries for months; that we get none of our last $15,000 appropriation until next March; and that we must retrench and cut down our party and wait.
By November,
The present tardiness in paying us up is most unfortunate. It is a very great inconvenience
(and I suspect he rather understates the matter).

As March approaches,
We can get no information as to whether our money will be on hand the first of March, as has been promised, or not.
I went to Sacramento three days ago and had a long and confidential talk with the Treasurer...and found out...that we will probably have to wait until next December for our pay! The state now owes me $1,400, a thousand of which was solemnly and surely promised before this time. Professor Whitney is still worse off, for he has borrowed several thousand dollars to carry on the work....There is no talk of repudiation—only, we can’t get our money when it is due.
Thanks, apparently, to some fiscal chicanery among state officials:
None of the state officers had received their salaries during the latter part of the last year, but before they left office, the Comptroller and the Treasurer hit on a plan to relieve their own cases and that of their fellows....They called in, in advance, over $250,000 in the fall, not due until spring, and thus paid off all their back salaries and the claims of certain friends. A part of this money belonged to the Interest Fund, supposed to be kept inviolate for payment of the interest on the state debts; about $110,000 or $115,000....The new set of officers came in, but couldn’t be paid. The Assembly seized on $60,000 of a select fund, the Swamp Land Fund, and are now trying for $100,000 more, and will doubtless take it.... I had hoped for better things, that the rule of scoundrelism in the state was over—it is not over—but “still lives.”
So they make do, borrow, and get along until December. At which point:
$5,000 had been promised surely in December, then the twentieth fixed. All looked forward to this day—all were in debt, all had much salary due. My salary at the end of this month if not paid, would be about $1,760 behind—a snug little sum. In the meantime, as I had got no money for a long time, I had run about $500 in debt, on part of which I had to pay 2 1/2 per cent per month interest. The twentieth came—but instead of the money, a letter came from the scoundrel who is comptroller, telling us that we would not be paid until May!
But surely they get paid in May, right? Apparently not, because at the end of August 1863 (nearly two years after the initial delay) Brewer is still having
the same old trouble about getting money....The state now owes Professor Whitney (including our unpaid salaries) about $25,000...My salary is now back to the amount of $2,800, or for one year and two months, and I have to borrow for my personal expenses....It is infamous—political hacks get their money more regularly. We must wait, as our bills have less “political significance,” as the comptroller calls it.
That's the last we hear about it, so presumably they got paid--maybe in September, more likely in December. But it took a couple of years to get there.

I don't know if there's already a secular patron saint of Federal employees harmed by the shutdown, but if there isn't I'd like to nominate Professor Brewer for the role.


Victor said...

Fascinating, Tom!
Here's the money-quote, for me:
"....It is infamous—political hacks get their money more regularly. We must wait, as our bills have less “political significance,” as the comptroller calls it."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Or, to quote The Talking Heads - "Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was... SAME AS IT EVER WAS!!!"

Tom Hilton said...

Thanks! Yeah, that bit kind of sums it up for me.

merlallen said...

Thanks, Tom I'll read the hell out of that blog. I love history.

Tom Hilton said...