How'd the California guy get to Washington?
January 10, 2008 6:41 AM   Subscribe

American history question: before modern transportation, how much time did congressmen spend in Washington and how much in their home states? Especially those from, say, California. And how long did the journey take?

I'm reading the Federalist Papers, where Madison argues that "the natural limit of a republic is that distance from the center, which will barely allow the representatives of the people to meet as often as may be necessary for the administration of public affairs". Of course he thinks that the thirteen states are not too large for this. However, it occurs to me:

--back then, the trip from Maine to DC must've been a son of a bitch;

--the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. California was made a state in 1850. For those 19 years, did the California representatives ever have time to go back home?
posted by creasy boy to Law & Government (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Tangential, but related:

I recall hearing an interview on NPR long ago with a political journalist (?) who believed that much of the psychosis we associate with Washington DC politics is attributable to chronically sleep-deprived house members. Apparently, the introduction of expedient and relatively cheap domestic flights caused a fundamental shift in the behavior of senators and congressmen, who historically would spend a few months of the year in Washington but most of the time were in their home states/districts. Now, they feel compelled to travel back and forth for short periods of time, and it takes a big toll on their sanity.

(I don't remember who was being interviewed, not too useful, I know)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:07 AM on January 10, 2008

The House Clerk site has a complete list of session dates. That's not exactly an answer, but it'll give you a ballpark idea.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:42 AM on January 10, 2008

qxntpqbbbqxl, I think it was Bill Clinton.
posted by starman at 8:16 AM on January 10, 2008

Before the railroad (which took about a week to cross the country), travel was accomplished by steamboat around Cape Horn. That took 4-6 weeks. California become a state on September 9th, but news didn't reach them until October 18th. Here's a nifty NY Times article from July 15, 1856 and mentions the passage of the Sonora which left San Francisco on June 20th.
posted by yeti at 8:18 AM on January 10, 2008

This NY Times article from 1854 clarifies that passengers to California crossed by walking, mule or train 22 miles at Panama.
posted by yeti at 8:34 AM on January 10, 2008

I gave tours of the U.S. Capitol building when I was a Congressional intern. I did not receive proper training, so I tried to go on as many Capitol tours as possible so I could steal other tour guides' information. I seem to remember something about air conditioning being a huge factor in the determination of recess dates by the Congress. They left when the city began to get sultry and and came back when the weather cooled.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:37 AM on January 10, 2008

Here's an article on how AC affected their schedule.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:40 AM on January 10, 2008

Interestingly, I wonder if it was more accepted that a senator or congressman wouldn't necessarily be in Washington all the time. These days, it seems like people believe that if she is not in D.C., she's not doing her job. That might be why they're on all those "relatively cheap domestic flights." ;-)
posted by tcv at 8:54 AM on January 10, 2008

I remember reading about this in "A Team of Rivals," the new bio of Abraham Lincoln. It's long, but if you wanted to skim the first few chapters while waiting for someone in a bookstore, the author gives a wonderfully rich description of statemen's lives at the time.
posted by jdruk at 10:03 AM on January 10, 2008

back then, the trip from Maine to DC must've been a son of a bitch
Back then Maine was part of Massachusetts.

posted by kirkaracha at 10:54 AM on January 10, 2008

These days, it seems like people believe that if she is not in D.C., she's not doing her job.

Not true, actually. These days, members of Congress spend less time than ever in DC. (The 109th Congress--in session from 2005-2007--actually met for fewer days than the storied Do Nothing Congress of the late '40s.) It is very common for them to be on the Hill Tues-Thurs. That's when committee work is done. Most fly back to their districts on Thurs night and don't come back until Monday evening to fund raise, shake hands, go to local fairs and ribbon cutting ceremonies. DC culture is not what it once was. Until relatively recently (pre-1980s) members of Congress had their primary residences in DC and their families lived with them there. Nowadays, most members' families live in the home district. Cokie Roberts discusses it often, as her father was the former House Majority Leader. She attributes the partisanship and lack of collegiality in Congress to this. In fact, many many members of Congress room together for the few days a week when they're in DC (Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. William Delahunt, Rep. George Miller, and Sen. Dick Durbin all live together.)
posted by HotPatatta at 11:29 AM on January 10, 2008

Response by poster: All great answers! Thank you!
posted by creasy boy at 11:21 PM on January 10, 2008

I don't know if this is the same interview you were thinking of, qxntpqbbbqxl, but Bill Clinton did speak about that on The A The Daily Show.
posted by sambosambo at 2:25 AM on January 11, 2008

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