Customs Service, U.S.

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CUSTOMS SERVICE, U.S. From its inception on 31July 1789 the Customs Service has been responsible for oversight of all imports into the country. It has always collected tariff revenues and is charged with preventing smuggling; at its inception it oversaw the Coast Guard and America's lighthouses. In the early nineteenth century for a time it was responsible as well for enforcing the 1807 embargo on Britain, and it administered immigration until well after the Civil War. In the twentieth century, Customs has at different times enforced Prohibition laws, been charged with interdiction of the illegal traffic in drugs, and prevented the importation of pornography. At its origin it generated 2 million dollars in annual revenue for the financially pressed new nation, an amount that would reach 18 billion dollars two centuries later.

The American Board of Customs Commissioners in the English Customs Service was actively involved in the American Revolution. In 1767 that American presence was introduced as part of the enforcement apparatus of the Townshend Acts. Unwelcome in Boston, the English and American customs officers were the chief victims of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Customs confrontations with John Hancock in that port city resulted in the earliest organized American response that culminated in the American Revolution. By the mid-1770s, American customs inspectors under English oversight supervised America's ports, large and small, and usually sided with the revolutionaries. Weak central government in the 1780s left customs enforcement in the hands of the states, a situation that changed under the auspices of the Constitution. The newly constituted U.S. Customs Service was politicized from its inception. In the 1790s the Federalist Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton made sure that most of the more than 500 customs officers he appointed to serve in all the Atlantic ports were Federalists, many of them veterans of the Continental Army as well.

The die was cast. For much of the nineteenth century the service was tied to whichever political party was in power. Inevitably, even as it continued to effectively enforce the tariff laws and collect huge amounts of revenue, its politicization opened the door to corruption. On the one hand, in the age of Andrew Jackson, it became the vehicle Jackson used to suppress South Carolina's nulli-fication of the Tariff Act of 1828, forcing that state to comply with federal law in 1832. On the other hand, using Customs as a major source of time-honored patronage resulted in the first of many major scandals, this one in the New York customhouse. Successive collectors Samuel Swartout, in 1838, and Jesse Hoyt, in 1841, took their embezzled federal funds and fled to England to avoid prosecution. But even the patronage system that fed corruption in American ports had its silver lining. It provided safe havens with little work for major American writers like the historian George Bancroft and the novelists Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among many others. In the latter instance, one need only read the opening chapter ("The Custom House") of The Scarlet Letter to perceive the significant support role the Customs Service played in encouraging American belles lettres.

The Civil War was played out in microcosm in the Customs Service. Southern federal customs officers switched allegiances openly or in secret. In border states and captured Southern ports chaos reigned as federal employees followed their political bents. Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb dispatched Charles Cooper, his top Customs investigator, to sort out the personnel in these ports, only to learn a year later that Cooper was doing the same thing for the Confederacy as its chief Customs investigator. The war did not stem the flow of graft.

The most striking fact of the Gilded Age in terms of the service was that the New York Customs collector Chester A. Arthur became president of the United States in 1881. As Chet Arthur the spoilsman he seemed not to have been on the take, but he did not do much either to prevent other customs officers from accepting bribes. As president, though, Arthur's intimate knowledge of corruption caused him to champion civil service reform. Because his efforts were met with a stone wall of opposition, he was not really successful, but his exposure of the Customs Service to public scrutiny did some cosmetic good and opened the door to real change two decades later. When another New Yorker, Theodore Roosevelt, succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, real Progressive Era civil service reform followed, particularly in the Customs Service.

So the twentieth century ushered in a dramatically improved U.S. Customs Service. Its revenue collection shot upward, its responsibilities increased, and it grew from 8,800 employees in the 1880s to 20,000 in 2002. Customs handled espionage scares and terrorist activity in World War I; it enforced Prohibition (with little thanks from anyone) in the 1920s and early 1930s; it expanded its oversight to airports as well as seaports in the years just before and after World War II; and it dealt with artistic fraud from overseas sources with increasing sophistication as the century progressed.

Most importantly, as drug traffic increased after the 1950s and involved smuggling from every corner of the world (Mexico, Colombia, the Bahamas, Thailand, and Afghanistan, to name only the most prominent sources), the Customs Service has taken major responsibility to interdict the flow. It has had only indifferent success. The problem remains larger than the mechanisms of enforcement can cope with. Search and seizure laws, as always, must correctly be tempered by the limits imposed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Customs rectitude of a much higher order in the twentieth century than the nineteenth notwithstanding, the government has had to expand its enforcement efforts beyond the Customs Service to include the Drug Enforcement Agency and the appointment of a cabinet-level "drug czar" who is not part of Customs. The United States Customs Service nevertheless remains central to federal government operations, carrying out its traditional and ongoing responsibilities to enforce tariff and trade laws, collect the revenue, and prevent more traditional kinds of smuggling.


Prince, Carl E., and Mollie Keller. The U.S. Customs Service: A Bicentennial History. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.

Carl E.Prince

See alsoBoston Tea Party ; Drug Trafficking, Illegal ; Town-shend Acts .