Archival Follies, Our Glorious National Heritage

Scattered Observations Provoked by Recent Overlong Exposure to Early American Treasury Reports

Or, I came, I saw, I looked over the figures until they got blurry

Guilty of Terrible Spreadsheets
Public Enemy #1

1) Treasury Clerks (and possibly the Treasury Secretaries themselves) are history’s greatest monsters, evil gnomes who apparently saw no value in reporting figures in the same order, consistently, year-over-year.(William Crawford, SecTreasury from 1816-1825, is particularly noxious offender).

I suspect ideological constructions at work here. After all, why would true republicans produce the same, easily found tables listing duties paid on wines, spirits, salt, teas, coffee and sugar, every year? Such commonsensical practice speaks of corrupt aristocratic habits, and the chains of monocracy couldn’t be allowed to bite into the strong arms, agile genius, and spread-eagle patriotism of a Real American. Clearly, the most appropriate approach is to hide the figures in different parts of different reports, and reorder the table rows each year according to whim and current fashion.

Or maybe they just couldn’t be bothered. So I surmise, from my modern, small-minded hobgoblin’d perspective.

2) From the get-go, the government was *very* interested in offering projections about the productive capacities of the American economy. Virtually every report, from 1790 on, has a section (or sections) projecting next year’s expected customs receipts, manufacturing export totals, etc. I haven’t checked their accuracy…but no major howlers have caught my eye.

It’s not clear what was used to make these projections, other than gut feeling (perhaps dowsing?) and a generalized impulse to claim a larger budget for next year. In this, we must observe the wisdom of the Founders, in so clearly anticipating cutting-edge econometric methods.

3) Federal budgets can produce great, illustrative anecdotes. For example: In the 1826 fiscal year, “Civilization of Indians” cost the federal government $12,784.59. Operation of federal armories and the upkeep of its arsenals, on the other hand, carved $275,117.06 and $43,166.20, respectively, from national coffers. So.

4) Credit and delicious liquids were propping up the new Constitutional regime – just like Hamilton had hoped! Americans loved borrowing money to finance their government’s operations, but a close second was foreign consumables, which usually made up a third to half of all gross customs revenues, and often a larger proportion of total net federal revenues (the latter is less the cost of various re-export tax breaks and drawback charges).

In the early republic, spirits consistently provided significant duty-money, often followed by wine. Sugar was often an even bigger contributor (though of course they used it for things other than Coke products, unlike now) – though and tea and coffee were no slouches, either. The republic was kept afloat by some potent brews.

Enjoy a chart! (Here’s the data)

Chart of Duty Revenue


More charts! All based on data provided in the Ea Series of Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition Online, Millennial ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Customs vs. Internal Revenues Revenues, Debts, Expenditures

“Portrait of William H. Crawford,”,

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