The Journal of Economic History


Who Should Govern Congress? Access to Power and the Salary Grab of 1873

a1 Professor, Department of Economics and Institute of Behavioral Sciences, Campus Box 4832, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309; and Research Associate, NBER. E-mail:
a2 Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, 601 University Place, Evanston, IL 60208. E-mail:
a3 Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Box 20, Allegheny College, Meadville, PA 16335. E-mail:


We examine the politics of the “Salary Grab” of 1873, legislation that increased congressional salaries retroactively by 50 percent. A group of New England and Midwestern elites opposed the Salary Grab, along with congressional franking and patronage-based civil service appointments, as part of a reform effort to reshape “who should govern Congress.” Our analyses of congressional voting confirm the existence of this nonparty elite coalition. Although these elites lost many legislative battles in the short run, their efforts kept reform on the legislative agenda throughout the late nineteenth century and ultimately set the stage for the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century.