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Jefferson-Signed Act Allowing Maryland
to Collect Customs Duties
Click to enlarge:

Unless granted permission by Congress, the Constitution forbade States from collecting duties on imports, exports, or vessel tonnage. This was consistent with Hamilton’s plan to fund the federal government. However, Congress regularly granted permission for individual states to levy imposts or duties to be used for the improvement of their harbors and waterways. These permissions were regularly renewed, sometimes for decades. Here, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson certifies a copy of the Congressional Act that was constitutionally required for individual states to levy tonnage duties.

THOMAS JEFFERSON. Printed Document Signed as Secretary of State, An Act Declaring the Consent of Congress to a Certain Act of the State of Maryland, February 9, 1791. Signed in print by George Washington as President, Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and John Adams as Vice President, and president of the Senate. [Philadelphia: Printed by Francis Childs and John Swaine, 1791], 1 p., 10 x 14 ¾ in. Evans #23851.

Inventory #22686       Price: $24,000

Partial Transcript

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the consent of Congress be, and is hereby granted and declared to the operation of an act of the General Assembly of Maryland, made and passed at a session begun and held at the city of Annapolis ... inituled, “An act to empower the wardens of the port of Baltimore to levy and collect the duty therein mentioned,” until the tenth day of January next, and from thence until the end of the then next session of Congress, and no longer.”

Historic Background

The Constitution gave Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, and addressing marine traffic was easy enough when the waters involved more than one state, as in the Chesapeake. Indeed, acts authorizing the building of lighthouses and other navigational aids had been passed as early as the First Congress. Funding other improvements, such as clearing harbors or providing for inspectors, were more nebulous. James Madison’s diary of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention made it clear that the Constitution’s framers did not want to hinder the states from imposing duties to improve their waterways, but Section 10 of Article 1 asserted that “No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing its inspection Laws.... [and] No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage.”

The solution was to have Congress consent to state plans. When a state desired to improve its harbors or canals and needed to raise funds by imposing duties, Congress authorized these actions for finite amounts of time. The first Act of Congress, passed in 1790, allowed Maryland, Georgia, and Rhode Island to levy tonnage duties for harbor improvements. Congressional assent to these duties were extended successively for decades; Maryland’s duties were continued in force until 1850. In addition to navigational aids and dredging, states used tonnage duties to fund harbor masters, health inspectors, and care for sick or disabled seamen.

Legislative measures signed by Jefferson as Secretary of State

Following a law passed on September 15, 1789, Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State, signed two copies of each law, order, vote, or resolution of Congress for distribution to the executive of every state. (By the same law, a single copy was distributed to each U.S. senator and representative, though these did not require Jefferson’s authentication. Surviving copies are unsigned and printed on much smaller paper.) As there were 14 states at the time this act was passed it is likely that just 28 copies were signed by Jefferson. Kentucky was admitted as the 15th state only three months later.

*This item is also being offered in part II of The Alexander Hamilton Collection


Dobyns, Kenneth W. A History of the United States Patent Office (1994),

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Little Brown, 1948), p. 282

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