When most Americans think about U.S. Customs today, they probably imagine answering questions at the airport or at border crossings about their stay in a foreign country. While that is one of its major roles, Customs has also played a major role in the growth and development of the United States—collecting tariffs (or taxes) on imports.
Raising money was so important to the early Federal government that the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Acts of the First Congress dealt with setting up the Customs Bureau. From 1789 until the passage of the 16th Amendment (income tax amendment) to the U.S. Constitution in 1913, tariffs collected by Customs were a major source of federal revenue. Tariffs helped support the growth and development of our nation. Tariffs also allowed the U.S. industries to grow by encouraging Americans to purchase from domestic companies by raising the price of foreign goods.
The tariff was administered in dozens of Custom Houses across the country. One of these locations, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan, is now home to the National Archives at New York City.
Completed in 1907 by architect Cass Gilbert, the U.S. Custom House is a monument to international trade and the United States government. Statues representing the Asia, America, Europe and Africa decorate the exterior façade. Carved within the capital of each column is the face of Mercury, Roman god of commerce. On the interior, the grand rotunda is surrounded by large murals depicting ships entering the Port of New York. These murals were completed in 1937 as part of a New Deal program.
At the time of its construction, the Port of New York was the busiest port in the United States accounting for the majority of customs revenue. Though the Custom House cost over $7 million to build (approximately $175 million in 2013 dollars), the revenue collected at the Port of New York covered that amount in less than a month. U.S. Customs abandoned the Custom House building in the early 1970s for modern facility located at 6 World Trade Center. The Custom House at One Bowling Green stood empty for over a decade as some proposals called for the building to be torn down. The Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian moved into the Custom House in 1987 and 1994 respectively. The Custom House became home to National Archives at New York City in February 2013.
Now through October, visitors to the Welcome Center can see an early Customs record in our New York on the Record gallery. The Brig Persis sailed into New York Harbor on August 5, 1789 carrying various goods destined for merchant William Seton. He would pay a fee of $774.71 to import these goods. This payment would be the first Customs duty ever collected by the United States government.
The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th Anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents from this formative time via Tumblr, Twitter, and Education Updates. Follow #Congress225 for more documents you can use in your classroom.
Visitors can see the volume of New York Vessel Arrivals in the New York on the Record gallery in the Welcome Center of the National Archives at New York City. It is located on the 3rd floor of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at 1 Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan.