National Duties: Custom Houses And The Making Of The American State

Hardcover | April 26, 2016

byGautham Rao

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In the wake of the American Revolution, if you had asked a citizen whether his fledgling state would survive more than two centuries, the answer would have been far from confident. The problem, as is so often the case, was money. Left millions of dollars of debt by the war, the nascent federal government created a system of taxes on imported goods and installed custom houses at the nation’s ports, which were charged with collecting these fees. Gradually, the houses amassed enough revenue from import merchants to stabilize the new government. But, as the fragile United States was dependent on this same revenue, the merchants at the same time gained outsized influence over the daily affairs of the custom houses. As the United States tried to police this commerce in the early nineteenth century, the merchants’ stranglehold on custom house governance proved to be formidable.

In National Duties, Gautham Rao makes the case that the origins of the federal government and the modern American state lie in these conflicts at government custom houses between the American Revolution and the presidency of Andrew Jackson. He argues that the contours of the government emerged from the push-and-pull between these groups, with commercial interests gradually losing power to the administrative state, which only continued to grow and lives on today.

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In the wake of the American Revolution, if you had asked a citizen whether his fledgling state would survive more than two centuries, the answer would have been far from confident. The problem, as is so often the case, was money. Left millions of dollars of debt by the war, the nascent federal government created a system of taxes on im...

Gautham Rao is assistant professor of history at American University. He lives in Maryland.
Format:HardcoverDimensions:272 pages, 9 × 6 × 1 inPublished:April 26, 2016Publisher:University of Chicago PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:022636707X

ISBN - 13:9780226367071

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“In his engaging debut book, Rao examines the often overlooked story of customs houses from 1769 to 1828 and argues for their central significance in shaping the American federal government. More than simply providing the majority of revenues collected by the federal government during this period, customs houses and the evolving relationships they fostered among merchants, customs officials, and the US government shed light on how the American state explored its limits and found its identity by grappling with the realities of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic marketplace. . . . This is a welcome study that reveals the importance of customs houses in the creation of the federal government and its development through the Age of Jackson. Highly recommended.”