(note: this post is for my old man–who would have thought moorings were so important to the Founding Fathers?)
I’ve been writing and revising the first chapter of my dissertation for far too long. I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yesterday I was revising a few pages about the history of American lighthouses immediately after the adoption of the Constitution. Lighthouses were vitally important for the new federal government because they safely guided the maritime commerce that was essential for the fledgling nation. Duties on imported goods literally underwrote the operation of the federal government–between 1789 and 1800 almost 88% of federal revenue came from customshouse receipts!
The specter of shipwrecks haunted the new government (to put it a bit more dramatically than I could in the dissertation). Shipwrecks undermined the financial stability of the new government–reducing revenue and scaring off risk adverse merchants. Legislators acted quickly. The seventh act passed by the first Congress put all existing “lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers… at the entrance of, or within any bay, inlet, harbor, or port of the United States” under federal control (until then they were controlled by the states). It was a sweetheart deal and states eagerly divested themselves of these fiscal and administrative headaches. In return, legislators gained control of the one proactive measure then available to prevent shipwrecks and protect the maritime commerce that was vital to their “republican experiment.” They willingly invested in the nation’s system of aids to navigation–the Washington and Adams administrations spent over $550,000 on maintenance, operations and new construction projects.
Like the members of Congress, the “high officers” of the new federal government “gave more than routine attention” to lighthouse matters, according to this historian. George Washington certainly did his part–going so far as to haggle over the replacement of a mooring chain. When a request came to replace “a mooring chain for one of the Floating Beacons of the Delaware Bay,” Washington replied thus:
“April 27th, 1793, Approved, so far as it respects the new chain; but is there an entire loss of the old one? Go. Washington.”
Now there’s a statement anyone in the mooring business would be all too familiar with.