5 Things Worth Knowing About Pork-Barrels

With all the recent talk about pork barrels and earmarks in the news, here are five things that might help stir the debate... or not, but at least they make good water cooler convo.

1) The term has always been VERY derogatory. According to most sources, the saying was first used by a journalist named E.K. Hale in a story titled "Pork Barrel," published in 1865 by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. In Hale's own words: "When plantation owners rolled out a barrel of salt pork into the slave quarters the desperate slaves engaged in a feeding frenzy to get the best pieces. It was a form of entertainment for heartless slavelords and their guests."

2) An early example of pork-barrel legislation is the Bonus Bill, introduced in 1817, way before the term was used to label it as such. The bill tried to finance highways linking the east and south to the western frontier using the earnings bonus of the Second Bank of the United States. But President James Madison vetoed the bill as unconstitutional.

3) Pork-Barrel legislation was rampant at the turn of the 20th century. I found this amazing statistic in a book published in 1921 called Principles and Problems of Government: "More than 80-percent of the building authorizations by Congress since 1789 have been since 1902. In other words, more than four times as many buildings have been provided for in 17 years under the sway of the pork-barrel system than under 113 years of unsystemic log-rolling."

4) In case you're now wondering about the origins of logrolling, which is basically the pioneers' way of saying quid pro quo, the largely accepted version goes like this: If neighbors had a pantload of timber that needed moving, they worked together rolling the logs out.

5) Pork-barrel legislation made at least one person famous in a good way: James Stewart was largely unknown until Frank Capra's classic 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released. If you haven't seen the movie, I don't want to ruin it for you, but there's a pork-barrel bill in the plot, used to finance an unneeded dam. Good stuff. Be sure to add the Oscar-winning film to your Netflix.

Mark Wilson, Getty Images
Barack and Michelle Obama's Next Move: Producing Content for Netflix
Mark Wilson, Getty Images
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Barack Obama's first talk show appearance after leaving office was on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, David Letterman's six-part series on Netflix. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that one of the Obamas' first projects since moving out of the White House will be a storytelling partnership with Netflix.

On Monday, the streaming service announced that they've entered into a multi-year deal with Barack and Michelle Obama, who produce films and series under a company called Higher Ground Productions. So what can we expect from the former president and first lady? According to Netflix, they will be producing a "diverse mix of content," which could take the form of scripted and unscripted series, documentaries, and features.

"One of the simple joys of our time in public service was getting to meet so many fascinating people from all walks of life, and to help them share their experiences with a wider audience," Barack Obama said in a statement. "That's why Michelle and I are so excited to partner with Netflix. We hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples, and help them share their stories with the entire world."

The former first lady added that Netflix was a "natural fit" for the kinds of stories they want to tell. According to The New York Times, Barack Obama said he does not intend to use the platform for political ends.

Last year, the Obamas signed a joint book deal with Penguin Random House worth $65 million. Michelle's memoir, Becoming, will be published on November 13, while details about Barack Obama's memoir are forthcoming.

founding fathers
The Time Ben Franklin and John Adams Shared a Bed

Ever been on a road trip where the sleeping conditions were less than ideal? Such indignities aren’t just for average citizens like you and me. Even Founding Fathers and future presidents had to bunk with one another on occasion. 

In September 1776, just a few months after the thirteen American colonies announced their independence from Britain, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams got stuck shacking up together for a night. As part of a delegation sent by the Continental Congress, they were on their way from Philadelphia to Staten Island to negotiate with Admiral Richard Howe of the Royal Navy for a possible end to the Revolutionary War. As they passed through New Brunswick, New Jersey, the negotiators—Franklin, Adams and South Carolina politician Edward Rutledgedecided to stop for the night and find a place to sleep. 

The local taverns and inns were nearly full, though, and there were only two rooms for the three men. “One bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me,” Adams wrote in his autobiography, “in a chamber a little larger than the bed, without a chimney and with only one small window.”

That window would be a problem for the two men.


Adams, who was “an invalid and afraid of the air in the night,” closed the window before they got into bed. 

“Oh!” said Franklin. “Don’t shut the window. We shall be suffocated.”

When Adams explained that he didn’t want to catch an illness from the cold night air, Franklin countered that the air in their room was even worse. 

“Come!” he told Adams. “Open the window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.”

Contrary to the lay wisdom of the day (and everybody’s grandmother), Franklin was convinced that no one had ever gotten a cold from cold air. Instead, it was the “frowzy corrupt air” from animals, humans, and dirty clothes and beds, he thought, that led people to catch colds when they were “shut up together in small close rooms.” Cool, fresh air at night, he believed, had many benefits. 

Franklin’s ideas were inconsistent with Adams’s own experiences, he wrote, but he was curious to hear what Franklin had to say. So, even at the risk of a cold, he opened the window again and hopped into bed with Franklin.

As they lay side by side, Adams wrote, Franklin “began a harangue upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration.” 

“I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his philosophy together,” Adams wrote. “But I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep.”

The strange bedfellows were out like a light, and continued on their way in the morning. The peace conference they were traveling to lasted just a few hours and produced no results. 


More from mental floss studios