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  • "The Lighthouse Top I See":Lighthouses as Instruments and Manifestations of State Building in the Early Republic
  • Allen S. Miller (bio)

Oh! dream of joy! is this indeedThe lighthouse top I see?Is this the hill? is this the kirk?Is this my own country?

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The joy of the occasion notwithstanding, the cold morning light of a New York Wednesday, the fourth of March 1789, exposed the truly ethereal nature of the federal government and of the American state itself. Soldiers fired celebratory volleys and musicians played ceremonial fanfares, but the United States Congress had nowhere to hold its first meeting. Its borrowed home was still undergoing renovation and expansion. With a sarcastic wit, Representative Frederick Muhlenberg described the recently re-dubbed Federal Hall as "elegant and well design[ed]—for a Trap."1 Weeks would pass before the Senate or House could establish a quorum. Although citizens had cast their votes to elect George Washington as president, the government could not convene electors and validate the results until that quorum was established. The executive-to-be would not be sworn into office—there was no oath of office as of yet—or even arrive in New York for more than a month. The executive departments of the Treasury, War, and State would not be established for another five months. A system of federal courts would not be established until the following fall. Although the general organizational structure of the new government was defined by the recently ratified Constitution, for those convening in New York, and for all citizens of the new United States of America, the federal state was merely a state of mind existing only on paper or in the imagination. Any evidence of its existence as a unified, sovereign entity was difficult to find in New York or anywhere else across the rest of the country. As a result, the elected and appointed officials gathering in the new federal capital over the weeks, months, and years to come would work diligently to create political institutions possessing widely acknowledged authority (as a demonstration of unity) and a recognizable state presence (the essence of sovereignty). Unfortunately, how they should go about doing so was largely undetermined.

One of the few agreed-upon avenues for establishing authority and presence was federal regulation of commerce. Four of the first five items of legislation considered by the House of Representatives dealt with commerce, and more than 40 percent of all legislation introduced and considered during the first session of Congress dealt with this subject. Although most of these bills sought to promote American political and economic unity and sovereignty through a coordinated system of duties and imposts, one particular bill supported a far more tangible projection of federal presence: lighthouses. The initial mention of lighthouses in Congress occurred barely a month after its first meeting, during debate on the Tonnage Act (HR-5) on April 4, 1789. In part, this discussion occurred because the transfer of power for levying and collecting duties on shipping from state to federal authorities also removed the mechanism for funding lighthouses at the local level.2 Notwithstanding this financial reality, other factors played a role [End Page 13] in the delegation to federal authorities of responsibility for operation, maintenance, and propagation of lighthouses. These were the regulation of commerce and promotion of public safety, two imperatives that concurrently nurtured unity and sovereignty. As such, lighthouses were important early instruments and manifestations of an expanding federal authority and presence. These factors, as well as the process by which that presence was negotiated and constructed, shaped the form and directed the location of these structures after The Lighthouse Act (HR-12) was passed on August 1789.3

Five factors exerted influence in this regard. The first was lighthouses' utilitarian function as a crucial aid to navigation. Another was their role as an instrument in the federal government's efforts to weave local and regional trade networks into a cohesive national economy. Very much a consequence of that objective was a new federal perspective that viewed lighthouses not as isolated, individual structures, but as parts of a systematized network of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-6832
Print ISSN
1936-0886
Pages
pp. 13-34
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-25
Open Access
No
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