Mark Hanna’s 1898 Senate Bribery Scandal – page 13

But Wasn’t Everybody Doing It?

Hanna’s bribery scandal was not solely responsible for the Seventeenth Amendment that provided for the direct election of senators.[165] It did, however, move the process along. One contemporary editorial noted:

The demand that United States senators should be elected directly by the people, gains strength day by day….[T]he open and flagrant degradation…by the use of money in senatorial elections, may be pushed too far. Possibly the election of Mr. Hanna may prove the last straw….[166]

It is impossible to know how much vote buying went on in the Gilded Age. But we should try to put Hanna’s behavior into context.

Between 1872 and 1913, a total of 499 men served in the United States Senate.[167] Most of these senators were simply elected by their state legislatures. Some were appointed by governors, often to fill vacancies caused by death.[168] Some were appointed for one term, then elected for another term, like Hanna. Some were elected for multiple terms. Of the 499 men who served, 465 won at least one election in a state legislature.[169]

The Senate rarely examined the means by which its elected members won their seats. Just sixteen senators out of 465 (less than four percent) were scrutinized by Senate committees for bribery.[170] Only one senator’s election was ultimately declared invalid by the full Senate, although several senators resigned when such a vote appeared imminent.[171] Hanna was one of the sixteen senators who were scrutinized.

Even though grumblings of bribery followed many Senate elections, they usually faded away. For these sixteen, it was different. Their foes back home alleged bribery, pushed hard, and would not give up until the U.S. Senate examined the documents and testimony they had submitted.

Such tenacity could be attributed to a variety of causes. Partisanship was surely one. Spiteful animosity could have played a part. In Hanna’s case, his opponents’ desire to embarrass President McKinley could have been a factor, too.

But some accusers might have persisted in their attacks because they knew they were right. Some of the sixteen senators singled out for scrutiny almost certainly were guilty.

Alexander Caldwell, for example, hailed from Kansas, where the buying and selling of legislators was openly discussed “almost as freely as the weather.” Although “unknown as a politician,” he was a man of “large wealth.”[172] The Committee on Privileges and Elections recommended that his election be voided,[173] but he resigned before the full Senate could vote on his fate.[174]

Other senators scrutinized by Senate committees were more likely to have been innocent.[175]

Some of the 449 elected senators who escaped scrutiny for bribery – maybe many of them – could have been guilty, too. There is no way to be sure today. Certainly, “dubious senatorial elections abounded.”[176] But Hanna was in the group of sixteen, not in the group of 449. These numbers alone suggest – although they do not prove – that Hanna was unusually eager to buy votes.


[165] Popular disgust with legislative deadlocks contributed to the amendment’s passage. George Kennan, “Holding Up a State: The True Story of Addicks and Delaware,” Outlook 73, no. 6 (Feb. 7, 1903): 277-283; no. 7 (Feb. 14, 1903): 386-492; no. 8 (Feb. 21, 1903): 429-436.

The desire to limit the power of political bosses and of corporations contributed too. “How We Elect Senators: from a Special Correspondent,” Outlook 97, no. 8 (Feb. 25, 1911): 389-392; David Graham Phillips, The Treason of the Senate, ed. George E. Mowry and Judson A. Grenier (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964).

Hanna’s race was notorious, but so were others. J. Edward Addicks of Delaware had a fortune believed to be between ten and twenty million dollars. He spent an estimated three million dollars on multiple unsuccessful races for the Senate. “J. E. Addicks of Boston Finance Fame Dies at 78,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 8, 1919.

[166] “Under the Rose: Reform in Senatorial Elections,” The Arena 21, no. 3 (Mar. 1899): 391-2.

[167] Senators of the United States 1789-Present: a Chronological List of Senators Since the First Congress in 1789, 26-54, Monroe L. Hayward of Nebraska was elected to the Senate but is excluded from the list of 499 because he died before taking the oath of office. Ibid., 48.

[168] S. Doc. No. 62-1036, at 146-156 (1913). This document lists senators appointed by state governors, but it omits Charles A. Towne, who should be included. See 34 Cong. Rec. 197 (1900);

[169] Senators of the United States, 26-54; S. Doc. No. 62-1036 (1913); Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases 1793 – 1990 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1995); George H. Haynes, The Senate of the United States: Its History and Practice (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1938).

[170] S. Doc. No. 62-1036, at xxvii, 1217 (1913); Butler and Wolff, United States Senate, 470; Haynes, The Senate of the United States, 127-37. The sixteen senators were: Samuel C. Pomeroy, Alexander Caldwell, George E. Spencer, Powell Clayton, Lewis V. Bogy, La Fayette Grover, John J. Ingalls, Elbridge G. Lapham, Warner Miller, Henry B. Payne, Marcus A. Hanna, William A. Clark, William Lorimer, Isaac Stephenson, Clarence W. Watson, and William E. Chilton. Senators Samuel C. Pomeroy and Alexander Caldwell are included because they served between 1872 and 1913, even though their elections were earlier. Senator Powell Clayton is included although he allegedly bribed legislators primarily with promises of lucrative jobs. Senator Elbridge G. Lapham and Senator Warner Miller are included but the bribery charges against them were incidental to alleged election law irregularities. “Rumors” of bribery were alleged against Lapham and Miller, but no evidence was presented. S. Doc. No. 62-1036, at 426, 478-479, 697-699 (1913). Senator Charles H. Dietrich is omitted from the list of sixteen because the bribery alleged was unrelated to his Senate election. Ibid., 987-992. For a different total see, C.H. Hoebeke, The Road to Mass Democracy: Original Intent and the Seventeenth Amendment (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995), 179-80.

[171] Butler and Wolff, United States Senate, 283, 177, 264; Haynes, The Senate of the United States, 128, 135. Haynes notes that the Senate’s failure to act against a member was “not always the equivalent” of a “clean bill of moral health.” George H. Haynes, The Election of Senators (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1906), 57.

[172] 1 Cong. Rec. 34 (1873).

[173] S. Rep. No. 42-451, at 6 (1873).

[174] “Exit Caldwell,” New York Times, Mar. 25, 1873.

[175] For instance, Senators Lapham and Miller of New York were likely to have been innocent. S. Doc. No. 62-1036, at 698-99 (1913). Senators Watson and Chilton of West Virginia were accused by a state legislator who later recanted. Butler and Wolff, United States Senate, 288-89.

[176] Lewis L. Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 10.

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Kristie Miller is the author of three political biographies, Ruth Hanna McCormick (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize); Isabella Greenway; Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's First Ladies. She holds degrees from Brown University and Georgetown University. Learn more at


Robert H. McGinnis is a member of the Washington DC bar. He is a graduate of the University of Florida Law School and Harvard Divinity School. His work has appeared in the Florida Law Review, Lawyer of the Americas (now Inter-American Law Review) and Rolling Stone. He and Kristie co-edited A Volume of Friendship: The Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway. Learn more at