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National DutiesCustom Houses and the Making of the American State$
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Gautham Rao

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226367071

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226367101.001.0001

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Negotiating Authority in Federalist America, 1789–1800

Negotiating Authority in Federalist America, 1789–1800

(p.75) Chapter Three Negotiating Authority in Federalist America, 1789–1800
National Duties

Gautham Rao

University of Chicago Press

The legal architecture of the American customs system was long on aspirations and short on dreams. It would fall to the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and the first generation of customs officers appointed by President Washington, to make the system work in practice. Fearing a shortfall of revenue, Hamilton initially demanded strict enforcement of customs laws. But on the waterfront, customs officers found it necessary to deviate from the letter of the law and to negotiate authority with the merchants who did business at the customhouse. As the customhouses emulated patterns of governance that had reigned under the British Empire, the federal government gained a reliable source of revenue. Hamilton backed away from demanding tight enforcement and allowed customs officials to rely on their discretion. Meanwhile, Hamilton used his teeming political economic writings to obscure the complicated events on the waterfront. As merchant capitalists gained influence over the inner workings of the state, Hamilton instead offered Americans and the world a sanitized view of national sovereignty and the rule of law.

Keywords:   Alexander Hamilton, sovereignty, accounting, revenue, administration, discretion

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