What Shall Be Done for a Revenue?

New York Evening Post, March 12, 1861

There are some difficulties attending the collection of the revenue in the seceding states which it will be well to look at attentively.

That either the revenue from duties must be collected in the ports of the rebel states, or the ports must be closed to importations from abroad, is generally admitted. If neither of these things be done, our revenue laws are substantially repealed; the sources which supply our treasury will be dried up; we shall have no money to carry on the government; the nation will become bankrupt before the next crop of corn is ripe. There will be nothing to furnish means of subsistence to the army; nothing to keep our navy afloat; nothing to pay the salaries of the public officers; the present order of things must come to a dead stop. Allow railroad iron to be entered at Savannah with the low duty of ten per cent., which is all that the Southern Confederacy think of laying on imported goods, and not an ounce more would be imported at New York; the railways would be supplied from the southern ports. Let cotton goods, let woollen fabrics, let the various manufactures of iron and steel be entered freely at Galveston, at the great port at the mouth of the Mississippi, at Mobile, at Savannah and at Charleston, and they would be immediately sent up the rivers and carried on the railways to the remotest parts of the Union. Nay, they would be sent directly from these ports by sea to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Shopkeepers would be supplied with their silks and laces from the same quarter. The shoe-shops would be furnished with their assortments from the French stalls, and the hatters'-shops would be filled with the work of French artisans which have never paid a penny to the government. When these and other kinds of merchandise were once in the country there would be no way to prevent their free circulation and sale in every part of the United States. The mighty Mississippi and its great tributaries, the long railways reaching from one extremity of the Union to the other, the active fleet of merchant vessels employed in our coasting trade, would rapidly convey the untaxed merchandise to the most distant neighborhoods of our great domain. The government, without special authorization from Congress, will have no power to create a line of custom-houses along the North Carolina and Tennessee frontier, or to cover the Arkansas border with stations of revenue officers to intercept the contrabandists. The whole country would be given up to an immense system of smuggling, which, on near two thousand miles of coast, would meet with no obstacle, or interruption, or discouragement. What would Mr. Wood-screw Simmons, the Rhode Island senator, who caused a prohibitory duty on wood-screws to be inserted in the tariff which has just been passed by Congress, in order that a single screw-mill might make all the wooden screws used in the United States, and that its fortunate owners might grow rich "beyond the dream of avarice"—what would this patriotic and most disinterested legislator say, if cargoes of untaxed wood-screws were to be brought from the southern coast by our rivers and railways and on board of our coasting vessels, and dispersed all over the country, and his hopes of gain disappointed? Mr. Simmons would weep tears of hickory.

To protect the interests of Mr. Simmons in the first place, and those of the federal treasury in the next, something must be done. The general expectation seems to be that the duties will be collected on board of armed vessels at the different ports of entry in the seceding states. Are our readers aware what a fleet this would require? There are seven collection districts in the little state of Florida alone; there are four in Alabama. At every port there must be a collector, with his army of appraisers, clerks, examiners, inspectors, weighers, gaugers, measurers, and so forth; there must be a Naval Officer and his staff of entry clerks. The Morrill tariff law, which we have just enacted, will make a larger number of all these necessary than would have been required a month ago. Where twenty men would have then answered the purpose thirty will now be needed. If we collect the revenue in this manner, with a fleet at every port and a corps of custom-house officers on board, it will cost us a great deal more than all we shall get.

But can the revenue be thus collected? The importers arriving at the southern harbors will know how to address the Custom-House officers. "We have a cargo," they will naturally say, "on which we do not care to pay duties just at present; we must deposit it in the warehouses for the term during which we are permitted to do so by law." What will the officers of the customs do in that case? The government has no longer any warehouses in the seceding ports. The hold of an armed vessel would neither be a proper nor a sufficiently spacious repository for the goods. The duties in that case cannot be collected; and the collector will be puzzled to know whether to let the ship proceed to her port or to detain her.

We happen to know that there are importing houses at this moment preparing to take advantage of this opening for an unencumbered trade. They are getting ready to convey their cargoes to Charleston or Savannah; the goods will be landed there, and then brought coastwise to New York, where, being importations from a port within the Union, they will be subject to no duty. The new tariff, with its strange formalities and ingeniously devised delays, forms an additional inducement with them to take this course.

What, then, is left for our government? Shall we let the seceding states repeal the revenue laws for the whole Union in this manner? Or will the government choose to consider all foreign commerce destined for those ports where we have no custom-houses and no collectors, as contraband, and stop it, when offering to enter the collection districts from which our authorities have been expelled? Or will the President call a special session of Congress to do what the last unwisely failed to do—to abolish all ports of entry in the seceding states?