National DutiesCustom Houses and the Making of the American State

National DutiesCustom Houses and the Making of the American State

Gautham Rao

Print publication date: 2017

ISBN: 9780226367071

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Why did Americans create a federal government after the American Revolution? How did this new government work? This book explores these questions by telling the story of federal customhouses in the early American republic. At the customhouse, the federal government was to collect taxes and regulate trade. But how could the government do so with limited manpower and resources? The founding leadership, especially Alexander Hamilton, looked to the precedent of the British Empire and built a customs system by negotiating authority with the merchants who paid taxes and imported goods. As the federal government collected revenue and regulated trade, though, merchant capitalists gained outsized influence over governance at the customhouses. During Jefferson’s Embargo and the War of 1812, they used this influence to thwart enforcement of harsh new trade regulations. After the War, Americans then negotiated authority with merchants that had once anchored the federal government but who now became a pressing moral and legal problem. As Americans envisioned a new liberal order, jurists and politicians set about to dissemble the close ties between merchant capitalists and customs officers in order to ensure permanently separate the state from the marketplace.