American Maritime Documents, 1776-1860 - Stein, Douglas L.
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Following the American Revolution, each state attempted to set up a customs service of its own. However; by 1789 it was apparent that a more consisent and coordinated Federal service was necessary. On 31 July of that year, President Washington signed legislation which established the United States Customs Service. As a branch of the Treasury Department, it became the first fully-formed national agency, and was created primarily to generate much-needed revenue for the new government.
Initially there were 59 customs districts set up in 11 states. Each district employed a customs collector, appointed by the President, and a naval officer. Other officials assisted the collector at the various ports within each district. The larger ports like New York and Boston would employ various numbers of surveyors, weighers, gaugers, inspectors, and revenue-cutter crews, all with specific responsibilities for the conduct of business at the port.
The Customs Service was originally responsible for the collection of duties on imported goods, the registering and licensing of American vessels, the enforcement of all maritime and navigation laws, and the management of regulations governing the entry and clearance of seamen and passengers. While these functions remained, responsibilities were expanded and became more specialized during the nineteenth century. After 1793, regulatory forms for exports as well as imports were required. Between 1798 and 1809, the customs enforced the various embargo and non-intercourse laws, issued regulatory documentation, and initiated libel action against violators. The Marine Hospital, providing care for sick or disabled seamen, was founded in 1798, and the customs officials were delegated to collect hospital fees from vessels arriving at their port. After 1819, customs districts were required to collect the passenger lists of all vessels arriving from foreign ports. Other responsibilities included holding imported goods in bonded warehouses until the duty was paid (1846); keeping official records on the sale of vessels (1850); and regulating steamship commerce and safety.
By 1860, the increasing complexity of regulating maritime commerce had made the customs service a large agency, responsible for nearly one half of the revenue taken in by the Federal government.
What follows is a representative selection of customs forms and certificates issued by port officials, and/or recorded by them as part of their daily activities. Along with related items like bonds, oaths, and receipts, found elsewhere in this book, they can provide the reader with a better understanding of what the customs service did during this period, and just what documents were required for the lawful conduct of maritime business.