Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 7: Commerce (1819-1891)

Chapter 7. Records of the Commerce Committees and Its Predecessors

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Records of Committees Relating to Claims 1794-1946 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committees discussed in this chapter:
Records of the Committee on Commerce (1819-1892)

History and Jurisdiction

7.26 This section reviews the records of the Committee on Commerce that existed from 1819, when the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures was split into two standing committees, until 1891, when its name was changed to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. During this period, the committee's jurisdiction extended to "commerce, Life-Saving Service, and light-houses, other than appropriations for Life-Saving Service and light-houses."3 In practice, the committee's responsibilities encompassed regulation of both interstate and foreign commerce generally; customs collection districts, ports of entry, and ports of delivery; compensation of customhouse officials; regulations and appropriations regarding navigable waters and works affecting them, such as bridges, locks, dams, tunnels, pipes, and cribs; obstructions to navigation, such as sunken vessels; lighthouses and other aids to navigation; interoceanic canals; ocean cables; lifesaving stations; public health and the prevention of infectious diseases; purity of food and drugs; regulations regarding the exportation of livestock and foodstuffs; transportation of livestock; and the regulation of railroads. Besides the Lifesaving Service, the committee exercised jurisdiction over matters relating to such Federal agencies as the Revenue-Cutter Service; the Marine Hospital Service; and the Interstate Commerce Commission.

7.27 When the Committee on Rivers and Harbors was established on December 19, 1883, the Committee on Commerce relinquished its jurisdiction over appropriations for the improvement of rivers and harbors.

Records of the Committee on Commerce, 16th-51st Congresses (1819- 1891)

Record TypeVolumeCongress (dates)
Docket Books6 vols.19th-22d (1825-33), 28th-30th (1843-49), 34th (1855-59)
Petitions & Memorials57 ft.16th-51st (1819-91)
Committee Papers16 ft.16th-51st (1819-91)
TOTAL:73 ft. and 6 vols. (1 ft.)

7.28 The docket books contain a list of the bills, resolutions, petitions, and memorials that were referred to the committee. The entries note the Member of Congress who introduced or presented the item, the date of referral, and the subject. In many instances, the entries also indicate the member or members of the committee assigned as an ad hoc subcommittee to consider a given matter and make recommendations to the committee about it; frequently there is also information concerning the final disposition by the committee. The volumes for the years 1845-47 include some notes on attendance at committee meetings. Apparently in an attempt to deal with a chronic problem of members arriving late or failing to come to committee meetings, the committee resolved to assess fines against those absent 15 minutes after the meeting began.

7.29 Petitions and memorials, with resolutions of State legislatures and other groups, comprises the largest series of records of the Committee on Commerce. Other types of documents in this series include maps, sketches, vessel enrollment certificates, letters, reports of surveys of harbors, customs data, newspaper clippings, bills, and resolutions referring particular matters to the committee. Issues relating to waterborne commerce predominate, especially for the period before the Civil War. In the postwar years, railroad and telegraph issues also appear with some frequency.

7.30 This series includes for almost every Congress a subseries consisting of petitions and memorials concerning placement of lighthouses, light vessels, buoys, beacons, fog signals, and other aids to navigation at specific locations. Accompanying some of these are supporting documents, such as maps, sketches, letters, and tables of statistics on commercial activities at the harbor concerned. Most petitions were straightforward requests for a lighthouse or other conventional aids to navigation, but a wide variety of objects could serve that purpose, including structures whose primary mission was far removed from aiding navigation, at least ostensibly. The congregation of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church at New Utrecht in Kings County, NY, for example, submitted a petition in January 1822 explaining that their church and an old buttonwood tree had for years served as landmarks to ships entering New York Harbor. The tree, however, was decaying, and the church was old and had been damaged during the Revolutionary War. The petitioners were considering building a new church with a 130 foot steeple, and, in view of its beneficial effects on navigation, the petitioners asked that the Federal Government fund all but $5,000 of the $25,000 cost (17A-F 3.5).

7.31 The Committee on Commerce exercised jurisdiction over a complex network of laws designed to encourage American commercial activity, including the customs laws that established the system by which the Government raised revenue and protected native industries, the navigation acts designed to encourage American shipping, and the law providing a bounty to owners of certain fishing vessels. The committee received a large number of petitions and memorials regarding these laws, most seeking special congressional consideration of a specific case. Many petitioners sought a refund of duties paid on a shipment for a variety of reasons, such as that the goods had been destroyed by fire before they could be sold or because the shipment constituted a charitable donation for the relief of the widow of a murdered seaman (16A-G4.2). Likewise, an assortment of reasons might be offered to justify an exception to the rules limiting the coastal trade to American ships and imposing special fees on foreign vessels discharging goods at American ports. The owner of one such vessel, for example, asked for exemption because the law had not been enacted before he took on the cargo, while another asked for a refund on cargo that was in a British vessel when it arrived at an American port only because the original American vessel was lost in a storm while en route (16A-G4.2). The special privileges allowed American ships resulted in a number of petitions that sought American registry for specific vessels (35A-G3.15, 39A-H5.5). Similarly, the promise of a fishing bounty spurred a few petitioners to seek payment despite some disqualifying circumstance, such as failure to renew a license (16A-G4.3).

7.32 Some petitions and memorials, rather than seeking an exception to the laws, argued for or against a change in them, such as the 1820 memorial of the Virginia Agricultural Society of Fredericksburg against a tariff bill (16A-G4.2). There are petitions for and against repeal of acts prohibiting British vessels from bringing goods from the British colonies into U.S. ports (17A-G3.4). A petition from mackerel fishermen asked for a general change in the law to extend to them the same bounties available to cod fishermen (21A-G4.4).

7.33 Other recurring topics among the petitions and memorials concern the administrative machinery set up to enforce the customs laws. Since vessels arriving in the United States from foreign shores could not proceed to a port of delivery without first stopping at a port of entry to pay duty and complete the required paperwork, many petitions and memorials among the records request the designation of a specific location as a port of entry (numerous Congresses). Designation as a port of entry enhanced the prospects of a community vis-a-vis its neighbors and sometimes engendered rivalry, as was the case in a controversy during the 1840's over whether to confer such status on Lafayette, LA, instead of extending the recognized boundaries of the neighboring port of entry at New Orleans (28A-G4.7). Petitions also addressed such administrative issues as the assignment of steam revenue cutters to various waters (25A-G3.8, 26A-G3.10), governmental warehouses (28A-G4.8, 34A- G3.12), and pay and pensions of officials of the Government (16A-G4.5, 33A-G4.9, 46A-H6.5, 47A-H5.8, 48A-H6.3).

7.34 Steam power gradually overtook wind power as the predominant fuel of vessels during the 19th century. The new technology was not without risks, however, and tragic accidents occurred when steam boilers exploded. Concern about the safety of steamships is the subject of some of the records. In the year 1845, the committee received two printed petitions from travelers on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers who advocated the use of Evans' Safety Guard on steamship boilers in order to prevent explosions (28A-G4.13), while petitioners in 1854 asked that the Government purchase the patent rights to the invention so that use of the safety guard would be more widespread (33A-G4.8). Another petition advocated the construction of bulkheads to protect deck passengers in the event of explosion (31A-G3.8). Letters from Edward D. Tippett, newspaper clippings, and communications from executive agencies document Tippett's attempt to convince Congress of the value of his cold water safety steam engine (31A-G3.8).

7.35 Safety concerns also led to restrictions on the type of cargo that steam vessels could carry. Petitions from the year 1866 asked that the restriction on transportation of gunpowder by steamboat be eased to permit the powder to be transported in iron kegs (39A-H5.7). Another important advancement in safety was the introduction of compulsory pilotage laws and regulations for the Nation's busy harbors. Reaction to such measures was not altogether favorable, however, as shown by a number of petitions and memorials protesting the changes (16A-G4.5, 25A-G3.8, 34A-G3.10, 45A- H6.1). There are also records giving opinions on other innovations designed to safeguard passengers, including steamboat lighting, lifeboat, and inspection requirements (30A-G4.7, 31A-G3.8, 32A- G4.10).

7.36 Some petitions and memorials referred to the Committee on Commerce address social issues. The committee had jurisdiction over the Marine Hospital Service, created on July 16, 1798, to provide care for sick and disabled American merchant seamen.4 Funding for the hospitals came from fees charged to arriving seamen. There are a number of petitions and memorials regarding the hospital service. Most of these sought an expansion of the system, including establishment of hospitals on inland waterways for the temporary seamen operating canal boats on the rivers (22A-G4.3) and for emigrants and business travelers who might become ill while en route (24A-G3.6). Another petition, however, contains the signatures of thousands of married seamen who wanted to be released from the payment of the hospital tax unless the rules were changed to allow them to receive benefits (39A-H5.8). Other memorials relating to social issues reflect concern about epidemics of infectious diseases (39A-H5.4, 49A-H7.5, 50A-H6.3) and about immigration policy and its effects (32A-G4.8, 42A-H3.2, 44A-H3.4, 45A-H6.3).

7.37 There are numerous petitions and memorials regarding improvements to the Nation's water transportation system, including the removal of obstructions in rivers (numerous Congresses), the construction of canals (23A-G3.7, 45A-H6.5, 51A-H6.12), the building of bridges over navigable streams (numerous Congresses), and the creation of a St. Lawrence River waterway to the Great Lakes (37A-G2.9). In addition, a number of documents from the 1880's and 1890's support proposals to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, including Capt. James B. Eads' proposal for a ship railway in Mexico (49A-H7.3) and proposals to build a canal across Nicaragua (50A-H6.10, 51A-H6.12).

Map showing overland Pacific Telegraph from San Francisco to Moscow, submitted to the Committee on Commerce with a petition for a survey for a telegraphic line from the Amoor River to Russian America, ca.1862
Map showing overland Pacific Telegraph from San Francisco to Moscow, submitted to the Committee on Commerce with a petition for a survey for a telegraphic line from the Amoor River to Russian America, ca.1862 (HR37A-G2.8), from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  
7.38 A few petitions and memorials concern communications issues. For example, a memorial favoring a survey of an overland route for a telegraph from Russian America (Alaska) to the Amoor River in Russia, is accompanied by maps and a copy of H. Ex. Doc. 98, 35th Cong., 1st sess., entitled "Explorations of Amoor River" (37A-G2.8). Other petitions that focus on communications relate to marine signal codes (24A-G3.11, 34A-G3.8, 35A-G3.12) and the telegraph industry (44A-H3.1, 45A-H6.10).

7.39 Though water transportation issues dominate the records throughout the history of the Committee on Commerce, petitions and memorials dealing with railroads appear regularly during the period following the Civil War. Included are many protests against unjust discrimination in the rates charged by common carriers, calls for governmental regulation of interstate commerce, and comments regarding the effects of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 (44A-H3.3, 45A-H6.2, 46A-H6.6, 47A-H5.1, 49A-H7.10, 50A-H6.1, 51A-H6.9, 51A-H6.10). A few memorials called for governmental action to require safety devices for railroads, such as automatic couplers and air brakes (50A-H6.7, 51A-H6.14).

7.40 Numerous other issues and events are mentioned in the petitions and memorials of the Committee on Commerce, including an exploring expedition to the South Seas (22A-G4.5, 23A-G3.7), the value of foreign coins (22A-G4.6), a proposed expedition to rescue polar explorer Dr. E.K. Kane (33A-G4.2), exemptions for canal boats from certain shipping regulations (28A-G4.9), subsidies for steamship lines (35A-G3.9, 38A-G3.7, 45A-H6.9, 50A-H6.5), and regulations regarding the transportation of livestock (48A-H6.11, 49A-H7.11).

7.41 Committee papers of the Committee on Commerce consist mainly of manuscript copies of committee reports and communications from executive agencies regarding legislative proposals. There is a wide variety of other documents, however, including some petitions and memorials, letters received by the committee, and published materials, as well as occasional sketches, maps, affidavits, newspaper clippings, and copies of laws and regulations.

7.42 The committee papers relate to many of the same topics as the petitions and memorials, including navigational aids, shipping and customs regulations, private claims or requests, and internal improvements. Among the documents relating to aids to navigation are notes from an interview with Commodore James Barron regarding the use of light vessels off the coast of England and his suggestions for light vessels on the Chesapeake Bay (16A-D4.1); a list of U.S. lighthouses, their keepers, and salaries for the year 1828, prepared for the committee by the Treasury Department (20A- D4.5); a list showing appropriations in 1836 for harbor improvements in certain States (24A-D3.6); and copies of correspondence between the auditor in the Treasury Department and collectors of customs regarding the need for specific navigational aids, including estimates of the anticipated costs and statements of moneys collected in the districts involved (19A-D4.1). Papers from the year 1826 concerning the removal of wrecks remaining in Savannah harbor from the Revolutionary War include affidavits of local citizens who lived there during that historic era (19A-D4.4). There are also letters, dated 1853, from the files of the Coast Survey Office regarding the proposed removal of the remnants of the Aberdeen, which foundered on rocks near Fort Point in San Francisco Bay (33A- D2.10).

7.43 Records relating to shipping include a list of American vessels that arrived at Havre in 1819 and 1820, showing the difference in tonnage measurements between French and U.S. authorities, and other papers regarding commerce with France (16A-D4.2). There are replies to a circular sent to merchants and ship owners regarding the effect of the Shipping Act of 1872, along with other letters and affidavits of seamen recounting personal experiences (43A-F7.4). From the year 1879, there is a file, consisting mainly of correspondence, on proposals to allow American owners to obtain American registry for foreign-built ships. Included is a list, compiled from U.S. statutes, of exceptions to the registry laws from 1859 to 1879 (45A-F7.5).

7.44 Committee papers also include replies of collectors of customs to an 1821 circular of the Secretary of the Treasury regarding the act of March 2, 1819, which had eased reporting requirements for coastwise trade within the same or an adjoining State. The circular was used to determine whether the law had increased smuggling and other revenue violations and led to higher administrative costs, and to solicit suggestions on ways to remedy the situation. Most of the officials replied that smuggling had increased and recommended the repeal of the act (17A-C4.4).

7.45 There are papers regarding private claims concerning fishing bounties, drawbacks and other refunds of duty paid, compensation, contracts, wrecks, and clearances, including a bound volume of transcribed documents submitted by Solomon Hopkins and others in their case to obtain pay claimed for their work as aides in the Boston Custom House (35A-D4.2). Papers from the years 1883-84 relating to a request for a life-saving station for Chatham Bay, MA, include a map showing the sites of wrecks during the period from 1873-83, a letter from the keeper, and comments of the general superintendent of the Lifesaving Service (49A-F7.3).

7.46 In 1890 the committee received numerous letters, as well as newspaper clippings, from Kentucky residents complaining of plundering by persons living in shanty boats on the Ohio River. The letters favor legislation that would require residents of boats on inland waterways to obtain licenses (51A-F7.8).

7.47 Among the committee papers relating to canals and internal improvements is a copy of a blank questionnaire, dated 1870, used by the Canadian Office of Canal Commissioners on proposals for new canals or canal improvements in Canada (41A-F6.4). Papers regarding a proposed Mississippi River Bridge at New Orleans include a promotional pamphlet of the New Orleans Terminal Railway and Bridge Company, two issues of the Picayune, blueprints, copies of bills, and materials related to subcommittee hearings on the issue (51A-F7.4).

7.48 Committee papers concerning railroads include materials relative to an investigation authorized on May 24, 1876, of alleged collusion among railroad companies to control commerce. The records include a copy of the resolution referring the matter to the committee, as well as letters and telegrams received, lists of railroad rates, and newspaper clippings (44A-F6.2). Among committee papers of the 45th Congress is a letter from railroad magnate C.P. Huntington refuting a memorial of January 21, 1879 from the Nevada legislature that charged the Central Pacific Railroad with discrimination in rates (45A-F7.2). Other railroad related papers include copies of an 1886 diplomatic dispatch from the U.S. minister at the Hague regarding the railway system of the Netherlands (49A-F7.5) and a partial manuscript report of the 1888 investigation by the House Select Committee on Existing Labor Troubles in Pennsylvania created to consider circumstances surrounding the ongoing Reading Railroad strike (50A-F7.2).

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3 Asher C. Hind's, Hind's Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907) Vol. 4, p. 736.

4 The Marine Hospital Service is the predecessor of the Public Health Service.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (House Document 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.