Customs Commissioners

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Customs Commissioners

CUSTOMS COMMISSIONERS. The Navigation Act of 1673 established customs commissioners in the American colonies. Under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Board (not the Board of Trade), they supervised the activities of collectors, searchers, and surveyors of customs. The chief customs commissioners held their posts as sinecures, living in England and delegating the collection of customs to poorly paid agents in the colonies, who made mutually beneficial arrangements with local merchants. The imperial government did not closely monitor the customs system before the final French and Indian war (1959–1960), preferring to accommodate interests and promote trade rather than strictly enforce the Navigation Acts. This policy came to be known informally as "salutary neglect."

Anger at the extent of colonial evasion of customs duties, which was highlighted during the war, and the post-war need to raise revenue in North America led to a re-invigoration of the system by means of the Townshend Acts of 1767. It has been estimated that, before 1767, goods worth £700,000 a year were smuggled into the colonies. In contrast, about £2,000 worth of duties were collected on the goods that were legally imported, at a cost of collection amounting to more than £8,000 a year. The Townshend Acts did result in greater revenue—between 1768 and 1774 the American customs brought in an average of £30,000 a year at an annual cost of £13,000—but in addition to generating resentment among merchants, this policy exposed the entire arrangement of colonial dependency on the mother country to charges of corruption.

The central element in the revised system was a new, five-man American Board of Commissioners of the Customs, established at Boston in November 1767. The board was directly responsible to the Treasury Board, but had authority to rule without consulting it. Oliver M. Dickerson called the activities of the commissioners "customs racketeering," and Edmund S. Morgan agreed that "they richly deserve the epithet." Morgan described the corrupt practices thus:

[The commissioners] were a rapacious band of bureaucrats who brought to their task an irrepressible greed and a vindictive malice that could not fail to aggravate the antagonism not only against themselves but also against the Parliament that sent them…. In the complicated provisions of the Sugar Act it was easy to find technicalities on the basis of which a ship could be seized. The commissioners used these technicalities in a deliberately capricious manner to trap colonial merchants. Their favorite method was to follow a lax procedure for a time and then, suddenly shifting to a strict one, seize all vessels that were following the practice hitherto had been allowed. By playing fast and loose with the law in this way, they could catch the merchants unawares and bring in fabulous sums. (Morgan, pp. 37-38)

The offending vessel and cargo were sold. One third of the proceeds went to the British treasury, a third to the governor of the colony, and a third to the customs officers who made the seizure. The practice of the customs commissioners provoked the Liberty Affair on 10 June 1768, in which a sloop owned by John Hancock, presuming the lax procedures were in effect, attempted to land at Boston without declaring the totality of its cargo. When the customs agent refused, violence erupted, and the ship was ultimately siezed. One of the warships sent to support them was involved in the Gaspée Affair, in which the armed revenue schooner Gaspée was burned to the waterline by angry American colonists. The actions of the customs commissioners contributed significantly to the colonists' sense that the imperial government was engaged in a conspiracy against their liberty.

SEE ALSO Gaspée Affair; Liberty Affair; Townshend Acts; Trade, The Board of.


Dickerson, Oliver M. The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky