The Center for Legislative Archives

Guide to the Records of the U.S. Senate at the National Archives (Record Group 46)


Table of Contents

Chapter 7. Records of the Committee on Commerce and Related Committees, 1816-1968


Records of Committees Relating to Commerce, 1816-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States


Committee records discussed in this chapter:
Records of the Committee on Commerce, 1825-1946

7.8 The Senate agreed on December 7, 1825, to create a separate standing Committee on Commerce, as a result of the debate and vote briefly described above. Five days later Senator James Lloyd became the committee's first chairman. The Commerce Committee met during every Congress through the 79th Congress (1945-46), when, pursuant to the Legislative Reorganization Act, its jurisdiction was combined with those of the Committee on Interstate Commerce, the Committee on Interoceanic Canals, and the Committee on Manufactures to form the new Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce.

7.9 The records of the Committee on Commerce include the following series: Committee reports and papers, 1825-47 (2 ft.); committee papers, 1847-1946 (40 ft.); petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures referred to the committee, 1825-1946 (39 ft.); minutes, 1897-1919 with gaps (3 vols., 3 in.); legislative dockets, 1897-1934 (22 vols., 3 ft.); and executive dockets, 1899-1917 (8 vols., 9 in.).

1825-1901 (19th-56th Congresses)

7.10 The committee reports and papers consist of original and printed reports on bills, petitions, and memorials referred to the committee, and supporting papers. The supporting papers include letters from various correspondents, maps, nautical charts, drawings of lighthouses, statistical data and reports, and some petitions and memorials. Given the forms of transportation then available, it is not surprising that ocean-going and coastal shipping and related matters are the most prominent subjects referred to in the committee's records. Among the records of every Congress are papers concerning river and harbor improvements such as construction of lighthouses, removal of obstructions (sand bars, wrecked ships, etc.), collection of customs duties, and general operation of customshouses. For certain Congresses, the records document commercially useful technical innovations in the nautical and communications fields. Typical of the records of the committee are papers relating to S. 322, 26th Cong., a bill to authorize erection of certain lighthouses, which includes a drawing of a lighthouse (26A-D2); papers relating to deepening a channel in Mobile Bay (Pass Au Heron), including a hand drawn nautical chart (20A-D2); the original and printed report of the committee on Putnam's Ploughing and Dredging Machine for removing bars and other obstructions (29A-D2); and letters from various customs collectors in Maine to Committee Chairman John Davis of Massachusetts and other Senators (24A-D2). Reports on the number and types of vessels entering the Richmond and Petersburg, VA, collection districts for the period 1827-29 (21A-D3) and statistical reports on imported dried and pickled fish (19A-D3) and Portuguese wine (24A-D2) are among the records of the committee. Technical improvements in telegraphy (25A-D3, 26A-D2) and steam boilers to power ships (25A-D3, 26A-D2) are also among the subjects documented by this series.

7.11 The committee papers for the remainder of the 19th century (16 ft.) consist principally of papers relating to specific bills and resolutions (legislative case files), arranged for each Congress by type of bill and thereunder numerically. For many Congresses, there are also small amounts of miscellaneous correspondence, executive communications, and other papers on subjects other than specific bills and resolutions. After 1847, the original committee reports are maintained as a separate series.

7.12 The subjects of these papers are similar to those of the committee reports and papers. The majority of the legislative case files concern river and harbor improvement projects (including canal and bridge construction, obstruction removal, lighthouse erection and improvement). Other primary subjects include safety at sea generally and operation of the life saving service, protection of seamen, shipping regulation, ship registration, establishment of ports of entry, trade, and revenue collection. There are also some private claims.

7.13 Bills to authorize river and harbor improvements usually focused on single projects, such as S. 53, 34th Cong., to improve the Patapsco River in Maryland (34A-E2), or an appropriation for a single, but widely applicable purpose, such as testing Wilson and Meacham's illuminating lights for lighthouses (32A-E3). However, there were so many individual projects to review and so many approved that the process became routine, and the committee developed the practice of consolidating most, if not all, projects for a session or a Congress, into comprehensive authorization bills such as S. 142, 38th Cong. (38A-E3) and S. 1702, 42d Cong. (42A-E3). River and harbor improvement project appropriation bills, like all appropriation bills, originated in the House and therefore have bill numbers beginning H.R. The documentation accompanying both types of bills consists of the printed bill, printed reports, official correspondence from the Office of the Chief Engineer and/or Office of the Topographical Engineer, originals or copies of maps and charts, and other records.

7.14 Some of the river and harbor improvement bill files and subject files, especially those on specific projects, include maps, charts, and drawings. For example, there is a drawing accompanying the file on H.R. 6241, 45th Cong., relating to construction of a flume through the public works projects at the Falls of the St. Anthony on the Mississippi River in Minnesota, and a chart of the Boston Upper Harbor at the junction of the Charles and Mystic Rivers (45A-E4). Not all interesting supporting papers to these bills are graphic. For H.R. 7480, 49th Cong., there is a pamphlet, entitled "A History of the Monongahela Navigation Company by an Original Stockholder" (1873); other files contain substantial official and public correspondence.

7.15 Another prominent subject of the committee papers is safety at sea. Shipwrecks were commonplace occurrences and the problem was exacerbated by the use of steam boilers to power vessels. In the 1850's, the committee received papers that discuss proposals for preventing steam boiler explosions, including an 1850 treatise on the subject by Cadwallader Evans (32A-E2). The records also contain letters endorsing the life-saving qualities of Francis's Metallic Boats (31A-E2). In the pre-Civil War period, various bills referred to the committee addressed the issue of safe passage on steam vessels (35A-E2, 36A-E2). After the war, the committee received a number of bills relating to the establishment of stations for and management of the Life Saving Service, established in 1871 as part of the Department of the Treasury (42A-E3, 47A-E5, 51A-F7).

7.16 The committee also considered legislation affecting the treatment of seamen in the merchant marine, such as H.R. 3187, to revise the Shipping Act of 1872 (44A-E3). Seamen were concerned that this bill would weaken the protections previously enacted.

7.17 Another major area of committee interest was regulation of shipping. Bills relating to the establishment of ports of entry, registration and renaming of ships, establishment of revenue collection districts, uniform bills of lading, and pilotage laws were referred to the committee during many of the Congresses during this period. One such bill, found in draft form, sought to amend and consolidate U.S. navigation and revenue collection laws (33A-E2). While these bills tended to cover fairly routine matters, one instance in which this was not the case involved the renaming and registration of former American ships that had been registered as British by their Confederate owners during the Civil War (39A-E3).

7.18 The committee papers also include some records relating to foreign trade and consular matters. For example, in July 1852, the State Department transmitted to the committee the despatch of Edward Kent, U.S. consul at Rio de Janeiro, on the subject of the African slave trade and Brazil, which was also printed (32A-E2); as a general rule, this type of communication was printed and can be found in the Congressional Serial Set.

7.19 The petitions and memorials referred to the committee (32 ft.) are arranged for each Congress by subject, thereunder chronologically by the date referred. Miscellaneous or "various" subjects are arranged chronologically by date referred. The records cover a wide range of subjects. As with the committee papers, a substantial number of petitions and memorials for each Congress concern river and harbor improvements and aids to navigation (removal of obstructions, canals, bridges, lighthouses, etc.), shipping regulation and customs collection, foreign trade matters, safety at sea, and seamen's welfare. Many pertain to private claims. The committee also received a few petitions relating to railroad regulation and interstate commerce (45A-H4.2, 46A-H4, 47A-H5.2) and food and drug regulation (37A-H2, 47A-H5.4), among other subjects.

7.20 Petitions and memorials for river and harbor improvements and/or aids to navigation are in the records of every Congress of the period. Occasionally, maps, charts, and other supporting documents were submitted with the petitions. In the late 1820's and 1830's, most of the documents concern improvements for coastal navigation, especially lighthouses (21A-G3). By the mid-1840's, communities on the shores of the Great Lakes sought improvements to harbors and inland rivers and construction of canals, such as one around the Falls of St. Mary's (Sault Ste. Marie) and Niagara Falls (33A-H3.3). One of the more unusual petitions in this category was submitted by Capt. Henry M. Shreve, the inventor of the steam snag boat, which he used to remove an obstruction called the Red River raft. Shreve sought as remuneration for his efforts a preemption right to purchase 25,000 acres of public land (30A-H3.2). Throughout the 19th century, the committee received hundreds of similar documents, and some, such as those supporting the awarding of a contract to Charles Stoughton to improve navigation along the Harlem River in New York, were submitted repeatedly over several Congresses, 1885-99 (49A-H5.2, 51A-J6.1, 54A-J7, 55A-J6.4).

7.21 Petitions and memorials on a diverse body of subjects relating to the regulation of shipping were also referred to the committee in each Congress. Petitions concerning the collection of customs duties, the selection of sites for customs houses and ports of entry, compensation for revenue collectors, drawbacks of duties, and refunds of fines for customs violations appear frequently. Equally common are petitions relating to the licensing or registration of vessels or officers; in addition to individual cases, some petitions concerning registration of vessels generally (39A-H3.2, 40A-H4) and licensing of shipmasters, mates, pilots, and engineers (45A-H4.1) are among the records. An act of March 2, 1837, imposed pilotage laws and from time to time throughout the rest of the century, the committee received petitions supporting or opposing particular bills seeking modifications in such laws (25A-G3.3, 27A-G3, 29A-G3.1, 43A-H5, 44A-H4.2, 49A-H5.4, 54A-J7.2).

7.22 Foreign trade issues also figured prominently as subjects of the petitions and memorials. In 1841, a number of memorials on the subject of trade reciprocity were referred to the committee; generally these protest the lack of increase in tonnage of United States shipping to match the increase in imports (27A-G3.1). During the Civil War, the committee received a memorial in favor of abrogating reciprocity with Great Britain, which had adopted an officially neutral position in the American Civil War (37A-H2). Other petitions sought subsidies for steamship routes to South America (38A-H3) and reorganization of the consular service (56A-J6.4).

7.23 The safe operation of vessels, particularly the steam-powered variety, was a significant concern to merchants, ship owners, captains, seamen, and passengers alike. In the early years of the committee, these concerns were articulated in petitions asking for the erection and improvement of lighthouses and the improvement of harbors. Petitioners included David Melville, who sought an appropriation to test his improved design for lighthouses (25A-G3), and Silas Meacham, who asked that his improved lamp for lighthouses be used (28A-G2). With the advent of the steam boiler as a source of propulsion, concern focused on safety. In the early 1840's, an engineer, Samuel Raub, Jr., petitioned for adoption of a law to require use of a "double self-acting safety valve" (25A-G3.3, 26A-G3.2). About 10 years later, Philip G. Friese sent the Senate a diagram of his proposed safety jacket for steam boilers (32A-H3.4). Other proposals were also received (32A-H3.3). Rescues of shipwrecked passengers and crews were hampered by lack of equipment and the committee received requests for appropriations for life boats (31A-H3.3, 32A-H3.4). In 1871, the Life Saving Service was established; in the following years, the committee received numerous petitions and memorials relating to the administration of the service, and to the funding and staffing of particular stations (47A-H5.1, 50A-J5, 54A-J7.4, 56A-J6). Another memorial reflecting concern for the well-being of passengers was submitted by the Irish Emigrant Society of New York, which complained that the 1819 law regulating passenger vessels was inadequate (29A-G3.2). In at least one instance, the regulations on passenger ships were viewed as too restrictive. In 1847, the American Colonization Society protested that their vessel, the Liberia Packet, was built to accommodate 160 passengers, but was by law restricted to carrying 40; therefore, they sought enactment of a law exempting them from the restriction (30A-H3.2).

7.24 Other petitioners sought Federal assistance for their plans to emigrate to Liberia; Eli Morrow and 422 other residents of the Berdeen, MS, area sought an appropriation of $100,000, in their petition addressed to Sen. Blanche K. Bruce (45A-H4.4). In 1886, the African Emigration Society of Topeka, KS, also sought an appropriation to help them emigrate (49A-H5.9).

7.25 From the earliest days of the committee, petitioners sought its assistance in efforts to provide for the welfare of sick and disabled seamen. An act of 1798 first authorized such assistance. The first petition received by the committee in 1825 was from Governors of the New York Hospital claiming relief for the cost of medical care for sick and disabled seamen (19A-G3). The Charleston, SC, Marine Hospital also submitted a similar claim (21A-G3.3). Such claims were not limited to Atlantic coastal towns; for example, in 1853, the committee received a memorial from the members of the Ladies' Strangers' Friends Society in Honolulu, Hawaii, relating to the needs of sick and destitute foreign seamen discharged from the U.S. merchant services (33A-H3.4). The committee also received petitions calling for the establishment of marine hospitals in particular locations (numerous Congresses) into the 1880's. In the 1890's, petitions from various labor unions supporting bills to protect seamen were referred to the committee (53A-J6.2, 55A-J6.2).

1901-46 (57th-79th Congresses)

7.26 The records of the Commerce Committee in this period consist of committee papers (24 ft.); petitions, memorials, and resolutions referred to State legislatures (7 ft.); and several bound volumes, including minutes, legislative dockets, and executive dockets, listed above.

7.27 The committee papers in the early 20th century differ significantly from those of the 19th century, chiefly because the legislative case files that constitute such a large part of the earlier series are filed in a separate series of papers supporting specific bills and resolutions, 1901-46. From 1901 to 1933, the committee papers (2 ft.) consist largely of original or printed copies of Presidential messages and executive communications and other records that were printed as either House or Senate documents, such as annual and other reports of the Department of Labor and Commerce, the Department of Commerce, the Steamboat Inspection Service, the United States Shipping Board, and the Federal Power Commission, among others. Only a few of these communications were not printed. From 1933 to 1946, the committee papers (22 ft.) are much more complete, though this varies from Congress to Congress. The papers include general correspondence, Presidential messages and executive communications, a few executive session transcripts of hearings, and subcommittee records.

7.28 General correspondence (10 ft.), during the chairmanship of Royal Copeland of New York, 1937-38, and the chairmanship of Josiah W. Bailey of North Carolina, 1939-46, is arranged for each Congress alphabetically by subject. In addition to incoming and copies of outgoing letters and related attachments, the records also include press releases and newspaper clippings. The size and scope of the correspondence varies widely from Congress to Congress; for example, there are 3 ft. of records for the period of Copeland's chairmanship, covering such subjects as airlines, crime, fisheries, food and drugs, merchant marine, rivers and harbors, and stream pollution (75A-F6). Correspondence of his successor, Senator Daniels, is fragmentary for the 76th and 77th Congresses (76A-F4, 77A-F7, 1 ft.) but increases significantly for the 78th and 79th Congresses, with the largest files concerning civil aeronautics and the War Shipping Administration (78A-F7, 79A-F6, 6 ft.).

7.29 Presidential messages and executive communications constitute the bulk of the records prior to 1933 and are a significant part of the records thereafter as well. During the 1930's, new agencies such as the Civil Aeronautics Authority and the Bonneville Power Administration, were established and they, along with the Commerce Department and maritime and shipping agencies, reported to the Commerce Committee. Executive communications were also received from the War Department relating to the status of river and harbor projects. The arrangement of these records within the committee papers is either chronological by date referred or alphabetical by name of agency, depending on the Congress. Some of the less routine executive communications include a 1935 biographical summary of Bureau of Air Commerce officers and employees, with professional and personnel information on each (74A-F5); a report of the Department of Agriculture, in response to S. Res. 194, 75th Cong., on deaths caused by the exilir sulfanilamide (75A-F6); and a report of the U.S.-Great Lakes Exposition Commission in Cleveland, OH (1936), that includes photographs (76A-F4). There are also several miscellaneous communications from nongovernment sources; for example, accompanying a letter from the Waterfront Employers Association of the Pacific Coast (April 1940) are copies of labor arbitrators' decisions and other documents concerning the relationship between the association and the longshoremen's unions (76A-F4, oversize).

7.30 There are also a few executive session transcripts of hearings among the records, including two volumes of testimony, August 1935, on the circumstances of the death of Sen. Bronson Cutting in an airplane crash (74A-F5). Among the papers for the 79th Congress are transcripts of hearings held before the Subcommittee on Aviation, that are filed with related records in a so-called "Aviation File," concerning national air policy and Federal aid to public airports, 1945 (79A-F6).

7.31 Other subcommittees of the Commerce Committee for which there are records in the committee papers are the Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Practice (also known as the Subcommittee to Investigate Racketeering), 1933-34, (73A-F5, 6 in.) and the Subcommittee on the Department of Commerce and Merchant Marine, 1935-36 (74A-F5, 6 in.), which investigated merchant marine ship disasters involving the Morro Castle and the Mohawk. Additional printed material relating to the Morro Castle and Mohawk investigations is in the papers of the 75th Congress (75A-F6). Both of these subcommittees were chaired by Senator Copeland.

7.32 The petitions and memorials (7 ft.) are arranged by Congress and thereunder alphabetically by subject for the most part through the mid-1920's. Those not arranged by subject are in the category "various subjects," and are arranged thereunder chronologically by date referred. Twentieth century petitions and memorials are not usually accompanied by supporting documents, but the subjects they address are often similar to those from the 19th century. In particular, the petitions ask for Senate support of specific river and harbor improvements and construction of bridges and canals. These are found in the records of virtually every Congress. Some of the more prominent projects are improvements on the Mississippi River (59A-J14, 60A-J17) and construction of the Great Lakes waterway in the St. Lawrence River valley (67A-J13, 68A-J15, 69A-10). Protection of merchant seamen is another major subject. Seamen's labor unions petitioned the Senate to express their support for particular bills relating to desertion laws (57A-J8), abolition of involuntary servitude (61A-J9, 62A-J14), the LaFollette Seamen's Act of 1915 (64A-J17), and the merchant seaman's bill of rights (79A-J5). Other subjects continued from the 19th century include promotion of shipping industry, shipping regulations, and pilotage laws, but these are less common. Some of the 20th-century subjects of petitions referred to the committee include protests against the decision of the United States Shipping Board to sell surplus ships after the end of World War I (66A-J4), against diversion of Lake Michigan to provide a sanitary drainage canal for Chicago, IL (68A-J13), and against development of water projects and commercial development affecting national parks (66A-J5, 67A-J15).

Table of Contents


Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.
The Center for Legislative Archives >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

.