The Hill of Bean-Counters
By R. D. Flavin

9-13-2013

     I've never quite understood who the third person was in Bogie's classic Casablanca line: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.  I guess I've assumed it was the fugitive Czech Resistance leader and husband to yummy Ilsa, Victor Laszlo, yet it could have been Vichy Captain Louis Renault, who was also in the scene.  I know, I shouldn't be worried about a line from the film version of the play, “Everybody Goes to Rick's” by Murry Burnett and Joan Alison, rather my focus should be on Congress, the hill of bean-counters trying their damnedest to defund Obamacare (now that the Syrian bread has been temporarily removed from the grill).  Still, I reckon someone's got to count all those beans...


"Capitol Site Selection - 1791" by Allyn Cox, 1973-1974.

     The Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington D.C., home to the United States Capitol building and our bicameral (and often bipolar) legislative branch of government, the Senate and the House of Representatives, was mysteriously named “Jenkins Hill” by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, Pres. Washington's appointed architect of the federal district which would one day bear his name (the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia, later renamed the District of Columbia).  Historians regard “Jenkins Hill” as a harmless mistake by L'Enfant, as there was a Thomas Jenkins who owned land (and some slaves) nearby and L'Enfant is thought to have encountered Jenkins along a path, the “Ferry Road,” which was the only leisurely way through the thickly wooded area which L'Enfant had in mind for the construction of his “Capitol Hill.”  The land which became the “Hill” was actually owned by a prominent Catholic, Daniel Carroll (later, State Senator of Maryland), who was friendly to the Washington family across the Potomac River, and as one of the supervising commissioners behind the planning of the federal district, freely donated his farmland to the good of our new nation.  As these things go, Carroll's younger brother was John Carroll, the first Roman Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States (the Diocese of Baltimore), who initially considered his brother Daniel's land as the future location for Georgetown University (née College), but instead bought property just a scosh down the Potomac River in “Georgetown Heights.”  With all the Irish in those woods one might imagine a bean sídhe or banshee lurking about and ...nope, I'm not gonna' finish that particularly tortuous pun.


"Senate Bean Soup being made," undated photograph from Traditions of the United States Senate by Richard A. Baker, Senate Historian (US Senate PDF-retrieved 9-12-2013).

     One of the more rip-tooting aspects of the Hill is its one hundred and ten year old tradition of serving Senate Bean Soup.  Yeah, there's even debate on who introduced it, when, and what the exact recipe is.  First up, there's Sen. Fred Dubois (D-ID), a vocal anti-Mormon who was against the gold-standard and a one-time member of the “Silver Republican” party, who sometime after 1901 is said to have brought to the Hill his bean soup recipe made with navy beans, ham and a ham bone, mashed potatoes, onions, celery, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper.  Then there's Sen. Knute Nelson (R-MN) who requested a minimalist version of the soup in 1903 with just navy beans, ham hocks, onion, butter, salt, and pepper (leaving out mashed potatoes and other good stuff).  In 1904, Rep. Joseph G. Cannon (R-IL) missed his daily bowl of bean soup and (as Speaker of the House) made sure that both Congressional dining rooms would feature it daily.  Though, again with the bicameral and bipolar thing, the Senate includes 'taters, but the House doesn't.  In 2010 a bowl was $6.00, but who knows what the bean-counters are paying today...


Anonymous. 1867. “Fisher and Bradley.” Flake's Bulletin. August 13, 1867. Galveston, TX. 3, 46: 4, and John H. Surratt in Papal Zouave uniform.

     Okay, time for twistory...  The phrase “a hill of beans” seems to be an Americanism for something negligible (though used in the 1921 British novel by P. G. Wodehouse, The Indiscretions of Archie) and online sources (always, wink-wink, trustworthy) mention something about the fairy tale, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and then quote a farming manual from 1858 which contains: "A strong wire is stretched from the tops of posts placed at a distance from each other; and to this wire two diverging cords from each hill of beans are attached."  Ya' got to give credit for being first, but the lack of euphemistic context leaves one ...hungry for more.  Unfortunately, at least for now, I'm not going to waste my valuable goof-off time tracking down a full reference for the phrase.  However, I can add some tasty tidbits to sorta' sate the enquiringly.

     So, skinny-version, John Harrison Surratt, Jr. was born in Washington D.C. in 1844, baptized at St. Peter's Church, briefly attended St. Charles College, and then became a Confederate Secret Service courier and spy. The infamous Dr. Samuel Mudd introduced Surratt to John Wilkes Booth in 1864 and together they devised a plan to kidnap Pres. Lincoln and ransom him for thousands of Confederate prisoners of war.  Lincoln changed his traveling plans, the kidnapping never took place, Surratt went about his “business,” and Booth went on to assassinate Pres. Lincoln on April 14, 1865.  Surratt immediately split for Saint-Liboire, Quebec, where a Father Charles Boucher gave him sanctuary.  While he was in The Great White North, the U.S. government arrested, tried and hanged his mother on July 7, 1865 for conspiracy, as it was in her boarding house that all the criminals met and did their conspiratorial stuff.  Afterwards, he sailed off to Europe and joined the Pontifical Zouaves in the Papal States fighting against the Italian Risorgimento (“Resurgence”) unification movement.  Surratt was outed to Papal authorities by an “old friend,” arrested, escaped, sailed to Egypt, but was again arrested, only this time he was shipped back to the United States to stand trial.  Now, about that trial...

     Mary Surratt was tried by a military court, but because of a recent decision, Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2 (1866), on June 19, 1967, her son received a civilian trial as “indicted for the murder of Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States.”  Two months of witnesses, buko blathering, a mistrial was declared, and he was eventually released on $25,000 bail.  His attorney, Joseph Habersham Bradley, mixed things up with the judge (see clipping above), admitted his client had to plotted to kidnap the president, but as the charge was murder and other possible charges had somehow passed a statute of limitations, Surratt walked a free man.  After a time, he taught at St. Joseph Catholic School in Emmitsburg, Maryland, married a second cousin of Francis Scott Key, and had seven kids.  He took a job with a steamship company from 1872 to 1914 and died of pneumonia in 1916.  Mary Surrat was eventually buried in Washington D.C.'s Mount Olivet Cemetery (after Pres. Johnson released the body in February 1868) and her son, John, Jr., was interred at Baltimore's New Cathedral Cemetery.  Surratt fought against this country, but got great legal representation, even if challenging the judge to a duel didn't amount to, as the anonymous newspaper writer put it, “a hill of beans.”  Catholic burials, all around!  Now, that's some twistory, for sure!

     As Congress returns from vacation, I'd venture a guess most won't be concerned with either variety of Senate Bean Soup, and will likely be more interested in what the Tea Party is serving.  I know, the bean soup with ham isn't kosher, halāl, or vegan, but I've made it at home and find it quite tasty.  Of course, I'm pro-Obamacare and don't have a really big problem with dropping some well placed ordinance in Syria.  Bean-counting isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when Congress gets involved it's almost a guarantee that something will go wrong.

pfffft, Jacques demolay vous êtes vengé!
Rick

Return to