About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for Four Continents: A Commission of Daniel Chester French

November 9, 2020

Hello, I am David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to our program on the Four Continents: A Commission of Daniel Chester French.

The National Archives is home to the records of the United States Customs Service, the oldest federal agency, established by the fifth act of Congress on July 31, 1789, to “regulate the Collection of the Duties imposed by law on the tonnage of ships or vessels, and on goods, wares and merchandise imported into the United States.” 


On August 5, 1789, the first ship to usher in this era under the new Customs regulations entered the port of New York from Italy. The brigantine Persis carried various goods consigned to William Seton, a successful importer who also served as cashier of the Bank of New York under Alexander Hamilton. Seton paid a duty of $774.41—the first collected by the United States. From that start in 1789 until 1913, when the 16th Amendment established the collection of a Federal income tax, the duties collected by the U.S. Customs Service was the government’s central source of revenue. 


While the Customs Service had offices across the country, New York was the busiest port for many decades. The U.S. Customs Service records housed at the National Archives at New York City document that rich maritime history. The records are vast. They document trade, industry and manufacturing, ship activity, enforcement of maritime law, and of course the collection of duties. Records include cargo manifests, entrance and clearance registers, impost books, shipping articles, and crew lists—all of which provide excellent primary source material for the study of our nation’s maritime history.

The records list founders of our country—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Henry Clay, John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, Alexander Hamilton, and Timothy Pickering. The Customs Service was at one time the largest federal employer, and its employee registers list notable staff who were appointed by the President including future President Chester A. Arthur (appointed Collector in 1871), author Herman Melville (who was appointed an inspector in 1866) and even clerks, such as Arctic explorer Matthew Henson (appointed 1913). The grand U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green in New York City was designed by architect Cass Gilbert to reflect the agency’s significance.  

Records in the National Archives tell the building’s story from government acquisition of the land to the commissioning of artist Reginald Marsh to paint murals in the Rotunda for the Treasury Relief Art Project during the New Deal. Along the way you’ll find Cass Gilbert’s blueprint drawings as well as records documenting the commissions of Rafael Guastavino, architect of the Rotunda dome, and the Tiffany studio panels inside the Collector’s Office. The Customs Service remained in the building until 1973, when it moved offices to the World Trade Center. In 2003, the agency became part of the now Department of Homeland Security.

In 1990, Congress renamed the building for Alexander Hamilton, and eventually it became home to a number of federal agencies including the National Archives at New York City, the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. 

Today’s program will provide you with the historical context around the Four Continents Statues, which flank the entry of the landmark building. Historian Harold Holzer will discuss Daniel Chester French’s design as representative of early 20th-century America, his work with the Piccirilli sculptors, and the “influence” of Cass Gilbert on the statues. Afterwards, Dr. Chris Baron of Columbia University will moderate a question-and-answer session.

The National Archives encourages the public to use our records to study the past and learn from it, and examine our history both good and bad.  

This program is presented in partnership with the current stewards of the building—the General Services Administration—and tenants of the building: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the National Archives at New York City, as well as Chesterwood, the summer estate and studio of American sculptor Daniel Chester French and a National Trust for Historic Preservation site.  

Please join me in welcoming Harold Holzer and Dr. Chris Baron.