Through These Portals. the Saga of America's Custom's Houses

By McLaren, Robert | Sea Classics, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Through These Portals. the Saga of America's Custom's Houses


McLaren, Robert, Sea Classics


Playing a major role in American commerce, these stately edifices are today revered hallmarks of our centuries-long march to become a bastion of economic might

After the colonies declared independence in 1776, the young nation found itself on the brink of bankruptcy. Requiring revenue, the First Congress passed and President George Washington signed the Tariff Act on 4 July 1789. The act authorized the collection of "duties" on imported goods into the country. On 31 July 1789, the fifth act of Congress established the Customs Service. Customs officers were appointed and 59 ports of entry were established. The service was charged with the collection of duties on imports, taxes, fees, and penalties against vessels entering US Ports. On 5 August 1789, the Brigantine Persis, carrying miscellaneous cargo, sailed into New York Harbor from Leghorn, Italy. The first duty payment to the new nation was $774.41. In its first year of operation, the service collected over $2 million in duties. For over 100-yrs, the Customs Service funded virtually the entire Federal Government.

The revenue paid for the early expansion of the county. The territories of Louisiana (1803) and Alaska (1867) were purchased. The Lewis and Clark expedition (18031805); the nation's first National road, started in 1812, at Cumberland, Maryland, and completed at Wheeling, in what is now West Virginia in 1818; and the Transcontinental Railroad were funded by Customs. Customs revenue paid for the building of the US Military Academy in 1802 (West Point, New York) and the US Naval Academy in 1845 (Annapolis, Maryland). The City of Washington, DC, other federal buildings, and fight houses were funded by the Customs Service. By 1835, revenues alone had reduced the national debt incurred by the American Revolution to zero.

The War of 1812 produced many legal privateers; however, after the war, privateers took advantage of the political and mercantile connections of the Buenos Aires Government in South America, during their revolutions with Spain. In the United States, prosecution awaited anyone owning, equipping, fitting out, arming a foreign warship, or shipping men to serve aboard such a vessel. Needless to say, would-be privateers were very careful; their main obstacle was the Customs House. All vessels departing for a foreign port were required to file papers attesting to the ship's owner, master, destination and any arms they carried. Privateers usually cleared as an American merchant ship bound for a Caribbean or European port. Upon leaving the Port of Baltimore with little crew or equipment, the ship would sail down the Chesapeake Bay, stop at a prearranged location on the bay and be met by small schooners to pick up additional supplies, arms, and sailors to man the ship.

While foreign privateering was illegal in America (due to its neutrality at the time) authorities had little success in stopping the activity. The bay was patrolled by revenue cutters when Customs Collectors received word that privateers were smuggling goods. Under the 1794 and 1797 neutrality laws, suspicions did not carry legal weight to act. In 1817, Congress enacted preemptive legislation that directed Customs Officials to collect a bond from any armed vessel owned in whole or part by Americans before it left port. Also, if any vessel arriving in port appeared to be built for war-like purposes, carried a suspicious number of crew, a cargo of arms, and indicated possibly of being hostile, customs officers had the authority to detain the vessel until its owner gave bond to insure good conduct. The required bond amounted to double the value of the ship and existing cargo. This made the cost of seeking additional illegal money by investors difficult, and privateering came to an end. Prior to building the present day Customs Houses, offices were, in most cases, set up in the local Merchant's Exchange buildings. All locations for obvious reasons were near the water. When a permanent site was selected, the architects went all out to design a building that was strong and with an imposing style. …

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