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Lot #101
Alexander Hamilton Letter Signed

Treasury Secretary Hamilton seeks information to prepare his 'Report on Defects in the Existing Laws of Revenue'

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Treasury Secretary Hamilton seeks information to prepare his 'Report on Defects in the Existing Laws of Revenue'

LS signed “A. Hamilton,” one page, 7.25 x 9, January 20, 1790. Treasury Department circular letter, in full: "Motives friendly to the Interests of the Officers of the Customs, as well as to the advancement of the public service, induce me to desire that I may be as soon as possible furnished with a Statement of the amount of the emoluments, which have accrued to them respectively under the existing regulations, up to the first of January. As this letter will only be addressed to the Collector of each District it will be proper that a Communication should be made to the Naval Officer & Surveyor. I shall take it for granted that the information I may receive on this head will be such as I may place absolute reliance upon." In fine condition, with light toning from prior display.

Crafted to avoid any perception of 'taxation without representation,' the Articles of Confederation rendered the federal government essentially powerless to collect revenue—only states could levy taxes, and the national government relied upon disbursements from its states for funding. The result was a weak and underfunded central government. The United States Constitution, backed by Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, sought to correct these problems by allowing the central government to regulate commerce and collect taxes.

The primary source for these funds became duties collected at the nation's customs houses, sited at America's ports of entry. Collectors of customs were nominated by President George Washington, who often chose to reward loyal and distinguished service in the Revolutionary War with these sought-after appointments. Their salaries—emoluments—were drawn from a portion of the fees collected at their ports, which also allowed a certain expenditure for the maintenance of their ports and operations. However, these expenses were uncertain and the amount allowed for one port might be deficient for another, since the costs of living and the amount of imports varied greatly up and down the seaboard.

When Alexander Hamilton took his post as Secretary of the Treasury in September 1789, Congress asked him to prepare a report on the state of the public credit. What he produced, the 'First Report on the Public Credit,' analyzed the financial standing of the United States and made recommendations to reorganize the national debt and to establish the public credit. The House of Representatives then asked him for a report on any difficulties in executing his newly founded revenue system. In preparing his report, he sent this circular to his customs collectors seeking a Treasury-wide accounting of the variable expenditures required to run his revenue-collecting operation.

On April 23, 1790, Hamilton communicated his 'Report on Defects in the Existing Laws of Revenue' to Congress. In the detailed report, he enumerated more than thirty wide-ranging points of weakness—ranging from an inconvenient duty on pickled fish to the organization of the collection system as a whole. In that report, he comments on the emoluments offered to collectors: 'The Secretary considering it as an essential rule, that emoluments of office should not be extended by construction or inference beyond the letter of the provision, lest a door should be opened to improper exactions; has instructed the Officers of the Customs to govern themselves by a literal interpretation of the several clauses of this section; the consequence of which, however, is, that equal services are unequally recompensed.'

Auction Info

  • Auction Title: Fine Autograph and Artifacts, Ft. Prince
  • Dates: #627 - Ended January 12, 2022

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