Ledger From 1st Congress A Rare Find

The signature of Aaron Burr in a Senate ledger that dates back to the early 1800's.
A hand-written ledger book detailing Senate finances when George Washington was president has been found in an underground Capitol storage area, barely avoiding removal and destruction as work begins on a visitors' center.

The roughly 400 pages provide a window on the Senate from 1790 to 1881, beginning at a time when senators were paid $6 for each day they attended a session of Congress. In those first years, senators also received a maximum daily allotment of $6 for travel to the capital, calculated at 30 cents per mile for a maximum of 20 miles.

That came to a total of $10,655.50 for the 20 senators who made it to Philadelphia for the second session of the First Congress, according to a page dated Jan. 19, 1790.

The book also bears the signatures of Vice Presidents John Adams, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson. At the time, the vice president or Senate president pro tem had to sign for cash the Treasury Department sent to Congress to pay senators.

"The more we look at this book, the more we learn from it," said Richard Baker, the Senate historian who helped verify its authenticity.

The book was discovered last Tuesday on a shelf by Senate aides sorting through basement storage rooms under the Capitol's East Front steps, near where excavation for a new visitors' center is under way. They were under orders to remove items that needed to be saved by last Thursday.

The document's existence was not a complete surprise because published congressional papers refer to such records being kept by the Senate's financial clerk. Baker said officials believed in the 1980s that they had rescued all the records.

"This one fell through the cracks," he said.

The book's cloth-based paper is in excellent condition, despite its casual storage for about four decades.

Baker said he hopes to have the entire volume available on the Internet within six months.

By Alan Fram