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Incomplete Exoneration

September 11, 2019

The election of 1872 came and went.  The unsuspecting Congressman was re-elected, and his party had kept the House, the Senate, and the Presidency.

But the Crédit Mobilier scandal would not go away.  The Speaker of the House, who actually had nothing to do with this particular case, had been wrongly named as a participant.  In December 1872 he appointed a select committee to investigate.  He explained: “We have a choice only as to whether we will investigate or be investigated.”  Therefore, “We shall be the biggest fools on earth if we fail to take the initiative.”

Oakes Ames’s testimony before the committee was vague and contradictory.  Regarding the unsuspecting Congressman, Ames said that he had definitely given him a monetary payment, but was unsure when questioned further. Three times he claimed to have given the Congressman a check, and twice that he didn’t know whether or not he had done that.  Unfortunately for Ames, the Congress was most definite in its decision to censure him.

Ames swore he had given the Congressman a dividend of $329, but there was no documentation to conclusively support this.  Other Congressmen had received dividends from Ames, and there was paperwork to verify those facts.  But even they were not regarded as complicit in Ames’s scheme because they lacked the scienter which would have made them guilty.  So, when the committee wrote its report, they placed all the exonerated Congressmen in the same category and listed the unsuspecting Congressman as someone who had received Crédit Mobilier dividends.

Even into the late 20th and early 21st centuries historians have accepted the idea that the Congressman, although innocent of the original crime, may have perjured himself before the committee.  However, that is not the only possible conclusion.

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