Origins Of Pork 

Posted: 10:31 am Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

By Jamie Dupree

I was asked the other day when earmarks started in our current form of government.  I said it was probably very early in the history of this Republic.  It was a good guess.

Let’s start in the very first Congress.  I figured that there must be some kind of debate that might resemble pork barrel politics as lawmakers look out for the needs of their districts and states.

Sure enough, on January 31, 1791, the House was deep into the debate over a bill establishing the Post Office roads of the United States.

If you want to talk about ‘pork’ – or how lawmakers leave their imprint on where the money of the federal government is spent – this was a pretty good place to start in the First Congress, as they fought over where postal routes should be located.

Back then, that was a very big deal.

Rep. John Steele of North Carolina took the floor to complain about the plan for what was basically a 1791 postal delivery road version of Interstate 95, which was to run from Wicasset in Maine to Savannah, Georgia.

Steele observed that the plan would not benefit his state, as “a considerable and populous part of North Carolina derived no advantage from the establishment” of this post-road.

In debate, Steele said “he was satisifed with the route followed by the post as far as Petersburg” – that would be Petersburg, Virginia, just south of Richmond.  But he wanted it shifted more to the west as it worked its way south.

Steele “assured the House he was no ways influenced by private interest in offering the amendment he had proposed” to change the route.

The debate went on with some members arguing that the Executive should have the right to determine where the roads should be built, while others argued that lamwakers in the House knew their states the best, and should be able to weigh in on the details, an interesting echo on debates in 2010.

Rep. Abraham Baldwin of Georgia then weighed in with his own change, demanding that the post-road run from Savannah to Augusta, arguing that his state deserved more than just mail delivery at a coastal port.

The various changes proposed by members of the 1st Congress were all defeated by the House.

Looking for more examples of how lawmakers try to deliver for the folks back home, I grabbed an old tome that I found years ago in a small book store in Maine, which details the Acts of the 12th Congress of the United States.


And right there was some evidence of what we might call a “budget earmark,” a bill which authorized “the cutting and making of a canal from the river Potomac around the west end of the dam or causeway from Mason’s Island.”

Yes, that would be the Potomac River.  In this case, it wasn’t what we now call the C&O Canal, which runs 185 miles from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland, but rather a canal on the west side of the river, in present-day Virginia, what was then part of the District of Columbia.

It was a different time in the history of the Congress, as no money was specifically set aside for the canal, but lawmakers gave the city council of Alexandria, Virginia (on the other side of the Potomac) the “power to levy” both a property tax and “personal property and the occupations” of residents there to pay for this new canal.

That plan was approved by Congress on June 17, 1812.  One day later, Congress did something a bit more historic, as lawmakers voted to declare war on the British – what we would call the War of 1812.  

Another big debate in 1812 was on extending what we now call the “National Road” from Cumberland, Maryland into Ohio, with a further appropriation of $30,000.

You don’t think that debate was tinged a bit by the concerns of lawmakers for where the road should go?  It was, as residents of Pennsylvania urged the Congress to foot the bill for a bridge over a river near Pittsburgh.

Thumbing through that same book, I found another debate where location mattered as well, from April 24, 1812 about where to locate the U.S. Military Academy.

“The discussion principally involved the respective merits of West Point and Washington City…as proper sites for a Military Academy,” read the report on the debate in the Annals of Congress, the early forerunner to today’s Congressional Record.

An amendment was then offered to move the academy to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which was argued to be “more eligible, in point of economy, convenience and comfort, than West Point.”

Rep. John Baker of Virginia then suggested moving the Academy to his home state.  With those instincts, Baker might have done well in the modern-day Congress as well.

In the end, the House voted 67-36 against the idea of moving the U.S. Military Academy away from West Point, and there it stayed.

The bottom line here – don’t tell me that pork barrel spending was somehow invented only in recent years.

We know what a big deal it is to bring home the bacon in the 21st century in terms of road money and more.  It was just as important in the early years of our country.

So don’t be surprised when you see lamwakers trying to send some benefits back home, even as they decry home state budget earmarks.