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The Lighthouse Act

Forum dedicated to photos and information regarding history of lights, life-saving stations, keepers, lost lighthouses and more.

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Postby island » Fri Apr 05, 2013 11:20 am


In the research I have been doing I frequently find renditions of history that deviate from that which really happened by omitting significant details And this not history of one lighthouse or another but certain aspects of the lighthouse service. It appears some authors decide what they want the final product to look like and then cherry pick that which supports it. Unfortunately this is the way all too much news is delivered today, unfortunate because tomorrow, today's news will be yesterdays history.

The lighthouse act is often said for the purpose of saving lives. That's a nice comforting thing. But that is not quite correct. The folks of the first congress in New York City, in that hot, stuffy, and humid room, were attempting to establish the details of the new Federal Government as outlined by the Constitution and to not alienate the Anti-Federalists who despised even the word Federal--in the middle of this to pass an act to federalize lighthouses. The reason was simple and related to a serious concern. Regardless of what they designed the government to look like there was no consistent revenue source to pay for it and sustain it. Instead was a government flat out broke, owing money to three other countries and to the states that were also deeply in debt, and owing money to veterans of the war and by the peace agreement with Britian payment to the Tories for their property ceased when the left or were given the boot.

There was not a way in heck the population would tolerate a direct tax on the people. The only viable option was indirect tax, a fee charged on imports. The population was familiar with this from colonial experience and presently at some ports. But to later increase federal revenue short of increasing fees more imports were necessary. A way accomplish this was to make this country more attractive for doing business and to do thus by reducing the barriers to such trade and in this the barriers to shipping products to this country.

So what were the barriers? Two were most significant. One being the loss of ships and cargo on the shores. The second was long turn-around time to unload cargo at ports. Both were a deterrent to shippers of products because the ship owners were reluctant to carry cargo to U.S. ports. Ships make money when moving, not when sitting idle. Thus the 9th act of Congress to federalize lighthouses, buoys and beacons, regulate harbor and bay pilots to improve piloting in and out of harbors and improve the infrastructure, the public piers to facilitate more rapid ship unloading and/more ships at a time. Also to erect a lighthouse at the entrance of Chesapeake Bay..

This lighthouse act was approved by Congress August 7, 1789. Imports increased as did business and industry and employment with the multiplier effect of increased growth and increased employment, and increasing revenue for the government. This lighthouse act justified by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution was the first federal economic stimulus bill.

Not to forget there are usually unintended consequences. The imposition of import fees created another business with many jobs, a business which the population was quite skilled and had years of experience. This country was (and still is ) a nation of smugglers. In respose to suppress, if only partially this rapidly growing and profitable fee avoidance activity the Revenue Cutter Service was established August 4,1790. This in time to become the U.S. Coast Guard with the same mission today after over two hundred years--suppress smggling.
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Postby BMR » Sun Apr 07, 2013 4:08 am


Dave ...

Did the US pattern The Lighthouse Act on another country's implementation
of a similar thought, deed and need?
There are two pips in a beaut, four beauts in a lulu,
eight lulus in a doozy, and sixteen doozies in a humdinger.
No one knows how many humdingers there are in a lollapalooza.
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Postby island » Sun Apr 07, 2013 2:41 pm


There was at the time knowledge of the lighthouse systems of both Great Britian and France and of the lighthouse dues system at foreign ports and at some ports here but it was recognized that lighthouses were going to be needed in remote places between ports where dues could not be easily be collected if at all. Most recently this has been a debate topic in economics regarding federalizing of properties and methods of paying for such. Many of the congressmen, if not most were businessmen with first hand knowledge of the needs at the time, unlike today with professional politicians.

There was also at the time the concern at some ports regarding the government taking over their lighthouse and the property involved and loss or fee revenue for that revenue was used for more than just the lighthouse thus a sunset provision of the act, The feds taking over the piers as part of this act was no doubt a hot issue in the ports.
That none of the said expenses shall continue to be so defrayed by the United States, after the expiration of one year from the day aforesaid, unless such lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers, shall in the mean time be ceded to and vested in the United States, by the state or states respectively in which the same may be, together with the lands and tenements thereunto belonging, and together with the jurisdiction of the same.
(Give them a taste of federal money and they may come to like it.) I don't know if this meant all or nothing most likely or lighthouse by lighthouse of those then in existance. I also do not know if certain ports might not have imposed limited fees in addition to those by the federal government.

There was ongoing debate pro and con before agreement was reached to pass this act and with some voting no. There was no Congressional Record at that time, only extensive notes taken by one member, giving a picture but such not all inclusive.
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Postby island » Fri Apr 12, 2013 8:15 pm


More about the Act.

Lighthouse Act was not a done deal when first presented for House discussion and when the bill went to the Senate. There were continuing arguments for and against both in the House and later in the Senate regarding states rights and that such an act could lead to complete Federal takeover of the ports and more. Lighthouses were far less of a concern or less needed along the southern coasts so why should the agricultural South share a portion of the costs for lighthouses in the industrial North. This was a very hot issue in South Carolina the most vocal defending states rights at the time and to become much more so in later years, the first to secede from the Union.

The proposal to collect fees on imports was intertwined with the lighthouse discussion. Most imports were from Britain and carried on British ships and likewise exports mostly to Britain. The southern agricultural states were likewise very dependent on such with Britain and the primary money crop was cotton to supply the British textile industry. No trade agreement had been established with Britain so the House expanded this fee collection concept to impose severe protectionist tariffs with fees up to 50% of value on some British imports items and imposed a restrictions on British ships thus to reduce competition with U.S. ships. Fortunately the Senate stripped most of the harshest provisions from the House bill and thus avoided a trade war with Britain.

The lighthouse act did not create a lighthouse system or provide for such beyond that which existed on the date the act became law. Rather --
That it shall be the duty of the Secretary of the Treasury to provide by contracts, which shall be approved by the President of the United States, for building a lighthouse near the entrance of Chesapeake Bay, and for rebuilding when necessary, and keeping in good repair, the lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers in the several States, and for furnishing the same with all necessary supplies; and also to agree for the salaries, wages, or hire of the person or persons appointed by the President, for the superintendence and care of the same
.

The provision added by James Madison of Va. for the creation of a lighthouse in Virginia on Chesapeake Bay, Cape Henry, the first federal works project completed in 1792. This established the president that the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamiliton and those who followed in this position would implement and manage future expansion of the lighthouse system if and when such construction, lighthouse by lighthouse, and buoys and beacons were approved by Congress. This in response to petitions for such submitted by groups with maritime interests. Thus it was Hamilton who created the lighthouse service.
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Postby island » Sun Apr 14, 2013 9:18 pm


Though not addressed in the Lighthouse Act It was recognized by members of both the House and Senate that additional lighthouses would be needed and at remote areas of the coast. And likewise those from the southern states having only two lights, one at Charleston and Tybee Light at Savannah and with no lights on many miles of coast between Charleston and Cape Henry when constructed. This brief event in legislative history gives evidence to the forethought of the founders, the Senate to cool and temper the boiling hot tea brewed by the House.
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