Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton Exercises His Authority to Assess the Collection of Duties, Which Helped the Nation Pay Down Its War Debts

During the Revolutionary War, it was a widely understood defect in the Articles of Confederation that the Federal government was virtually powerless to raise monies. A main goal of the new U.S. Constitution was the correction of that defect, and with the support of advocates like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, it...

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Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton Exercises His Authority to Assess the Collection of Duties, Which Helped the Nation Pay Down Its War Debts

During the Revolutionary War, it was a widely understood defect in the Articles of Confederation that the Federal government was virtually powerless to raise monies. A main goal of the new U.S. Constitution was the correction of that defect, and with the support of advocates like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, it established a means to fund the country by authorizing Congress to collect taxes to raise revenue. This revenue would come mainly from tariffs and tonnage duties on goods coming into the U.S., which would be collected at customs houses at the ports of entry. On July 4, 1789, an act was passed formalizing this, allowing for the collection of import duties. The Collectors of these customs houses were appointed by President George Washington, and were men of substance who could be relied on (for example, Signer of the Declaration of Independence William Ellery was the first Collector in Newport, R.I.). In September of 1789, in one of the first substantial Acts of Congress passed and signed by President Washington, the U.S. Treasury was formed. That same month, Alexander Hamilton became the first U.S. Treasury Secretary. This put in place an agency to handle the nation’s finances.

Following the formation of the Treasury Department, Congress enacted laws allowing the Collectors of Customs, who served under Hamilton, to collect duties on imports. This was the primary form of income of the new nation. The Attorney General, William Bradford, also, in an opinion issued in 1794, gave the Secretary, Hamilton, some authority to help determine the rates of goods subject to taxation.

Letter signed, May 27, 1794. “In conformity with the opinion of the Attorney General, I have to inform you that the addition of 20 percent made to the allowance to Fishing Vessels by the act of May 2nd 1792 is to extend as well to the limitation of 170 Dollars contained in the act of the 16th of February preceding as to the specific rates of allowance, that is to say, the limitation is now two hundred and four Dollars instead of one hundred and seventy dollars.

“A temporary absence of the Comptroller occasions the direct communication of the above opinion from this office.”

In fine condition, and an increasingly uncommon manuscript letter of Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury.

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