Original Caption: Description: Event Date: Publication: Author: Owner: Source: 24th CONGRESS 1st Session

24th CONGRESS 1st Session


Praying relief from the United States on account of the late destructive fire in that city.


DECEMBER 28, 1835.

Referred to the Committee on Finance, and ordered to be printed.


To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United Slates in Congress assembled:

The memorial of the undersigned, chairman of the general committee of citizens of New York, in its behalf,


That, on the night of the sixteenth of December instant, this city was visited by a calamity extraordinary and fearful in its character, and unexampled and appalling in its consequences. A fire, commencing about nine o'clock on that night, raged with alarming rapidity until noon of the next day. During all that period the wind blew violently from the northwest, and the weather became so cold as to freeze the water in the hose and engines of the fire companies, and to baffle all the exertions of that enterprising class of our population to avert the progress of the flames. So great was the rapidity with which the fire advanced from its commencement, that it could not be stopped until it had laid in ashes a great portion of that part of the city occupied by those immediately engaged in commercial business. It was only extinguished at last by the blowing up of several valuable houses.

The fire originated in a store in Merchant street, south of Wall street, where the most extensive stores and warehouses were situated, and which, at the time, were for the most part filled with large quantities of the most valuable merchandise, consisting of all the varieties of dry goods, hardware, crockery, glass, teas, sugar, coffee, oil, saltpetre, and liquors. About seven hundred houses, including the Merchants' Exchange and one church, were reduced to ashes, and a great part of the merchandise contained in them destroyed; and so rapid and irresistible was the progress of the disaster, that much of the property, which, by the exertions of the citizens, had been removed from the stores, was afterwards consumed in the streets, in which it had been placed for greater safety. The loss in property thus destroyed is estimated to exceed fifteen millions of dollars.

Insurance to nearly that amount had been effected upon the houses and merchandise with companies of the greatest means and solidity; but so extraordinary and sweeping were the ravages of the fire, and so far exceeding all usual precautions and ordinary calculations, that, instead of being able to indemnify the loss, there is good reason to apprehend that the insurance companies, or many of them, will be involved in a common ruin with the immediate sufferers from the conflagration.

Since the famous fire of London, a similar calamity, arising from accidental causes, and equally destructive of property, has not occurred; and, in fact, it can only be resembled to disasters resulting from sudden floods and earthquakes.

Not less than fifteen millions of the national wealth and capital, active-ly employed in the commerce and manufactures of the country, have been thus positively and totally annihilated; and although the sagacity and enterprise of those by whose industry it had been accumulated remain unsubdued, they, nevertheless, require temporary succor and encouragement to enable them, by future exertion, to replace that which has thus been suddenly swept away.

The citizens of New York, at a general meeting, assembled to consider of the measures proper, in the present extraordinary emergency, to be adopted, have passed certain resolutions instructing the subscriber, the chairman of the meeting, to prepare and sign a memorial to Congress, praying-

1. A remission or refunding of duties on goods in the original packages which have been destroyed by the late conflagration.

2. An extension of credit on all the existing bonds for duties payable in this city, and falling due after the 16th of this month.

3. A general temporary extension of the time of payment of cash and other duties on goods imported into the United States subsequent to the 16th of this month.

4. An investment of a portion of the unappropriated surplus revenue of the United States in such funds and in such manner as will afford relief to the city of New 'York.

Pursuant to these instructions, the undersigned would respectfully urge upon Congress an early concession of the objects embraced in the resolutions; and, in order that the views of his fellow-citizens may be properly appreciated, he asks leave to accompany them with the following explanatory observations:

That the question, whether under any, and what, circumstances the duties upon imported goods, destroyed by fire or other unavoidable accident, should be remitted, is involved in some difficulty, need not be denied. Every relaxation of the rigor of general laws in behalf of individual cases, which ought properly to form exceptions, may be attended with more or less difficulty; but wherever it is consistent with the spirit of the laws and the reasonable safety of the public, a wise and liberal Government, desiring rather to mitigate than increase the misfortunes of the people, will not be deterred from authorizing it. Such, it is believed, has been, in numerous instances, the disposition of our own Government. Many cases of probable occurrence, which might justify a relaxation of the general law, have been already anticipated and provided for by vest-ing in particular departments of the Government a discretionary authority for their relief; and others, of a more unusual character, and not so easily foreseen, have been reserved, for a better understanding of the circumstances as they might arise, for the special interference of the Legislature. In many of these, the special aid of Congress has been interposed, in principle at least, to the full extent of the relief which, in the present instance, the undersigned has been instructed by his fellow citizens to request.

As early as the 14th June, 1790, the Government remitted the duties on a quantity of hemp duck and other articles, which were destroyed by fire in the brig Minerva, on her passage from New York to the city of Hudson. And in August, 1790, the duties on a quantity of salt imported into Annapolis, and casually destroyed by a flood on the night of the day on which it was landed and stored, were remitted. In May, 1794, the duties paid, or payable, were remitted on a quantity of coffee imported into the port of Norfolk and Portsmouth, and afterwards, shipped to the port of Baltimore, and there destroyed some time after in the night by fire. Also, in June, 1794, Congress remitted to Jabez Rogers, jun., the duties payable to the United States on all such distilled spirits as should be proved to the satisfaction of the supervisors of the district to have been destroyed by fire in the distilleries then lately burnt; and in March, 1801, they remitted the duties upon a quantity of teas which were consumed by fire in the public store in Providence, Rhode Island. In March, 1808, and in January, 1809, Congress suspended the payment of certain bonds for duties during the continuance of the embargo, and also prolonged the period for exportation for the benefit of drawback; and in April, 1808, they remitted certain duties in consequence of the operation of the embargo. In 1815, the Treasury was authorized and directed to allow Saltus, Son, & Co., of New York, the same deduction from the duties payable on a quantity of glass imported into the United States, on account of damage sustained during the voyage, as they would have been entitled to claim if the survey and measurement of the glass destroyed during the voyage had been made by the consent of the collector where the glass was landed. Congress has also made special provision for payment of drawback upon goods lost at sea; and there are instances in which most, if not all, of the formalities requisite to obtain a drawback have been dispensed with by the special acts of Congress.

Although on some occasions Congress have declined remitting the duties upon goods destroyed by fire, these cannot be considered as indicating that such relief will under no circumstances be granted. The denial of relief ought rather to be referred to the peculiar nature of the circumstances, not now to be explained, or even to a misapprehension of the real grounds by which the action of Congress ought, in regard to the whole subject, to be guided. It would prove at most that the decisions of Congress have been at different times, upon the same subject, fluctuating and contradictory, depending upon the circumstances of each individual case, and not intended to establish any general rule applicable to all. The decisions of an opposite character, already quoted, show that cases have arisen, and may therefore arise, in which Congress would feel under an obligation, where goods are destroyed by inevitable accident, to remit the duties. If the equitable interposition of Congress could in any manner be justified, it is confidently believed that the extraordinary and appalling nature and extent of the awful disaster with which this city has been visited peculiarly invoke its aid; and if it be desirable take any occasion thoroughly to investigate the subject, and to settle some definite principle for the future, one more apt, and urgent, and important than the present could not be presented.

To the undersigned, and the enlightened citizens in whose behalf he acting, it appears obviously just and equitable that under any system of impost, and more especially under that of the United States, where imported goods are destroyed in their original packages by inevitable accident-such as no prudence nor any of the ordinary precautions could prevent or guard against-white entitled to drawback, and before they had entered into the mass of commodities destined for the general consumption of the country, the duties should not be exacted, unless it should become impossible by satisfactory proof to establish the facts.

The system of impost in the United States, as in England, is one of indirect taxation, intended to be levied upon all the consumers of imported merchandise In the United States, it is resorted to mainly for the convenience of the Government; partly, perhaps, to avoid the odium and impositions of direct taxation. Although the duties must be advanced, in the first instance, by the importer, it is with the expectation that he will be enabled afterwards to collect them from the consumers, by whom hey are ultimately to be paid: By this system, the importer not only pays his own share, but the burden of recovering and collecting the share of all others who may be the consumers is imposed upon him; but he incurs no obligation to pay more duties than those arising from so much of he goods as are destined for home consumption, and he is, by the existing laws, especially released from all those which arise from that portion which may be used for foreign exportation. In this respect, he ought justly to be considered as the important and useful agent of the Government, for the sale of the commodities and the collection of the duties. The reasonable understanding and expectation of both parties is, that, for the advances which the importer, in the first instance, makes, he will have a reasonable time or the ordinary opportunities to make the necessary collections from the consumers. The importer stipulates for nothing more than ordinary vigilance and activity in the sale of the commodity, and for the usual precautions of safety in the interim which his own interests, not less than those of the public, dictate. He does not, and would not be required to become the insurer of the Government against alI calamities, however extraordinary, until, at least, the goods have passed into consumption; and if, within the reasonable time allowed by the spirit and intention of the laws for the sale of the commodities, they would be destroyed by inevitable accident, the consideration of his agency, and upon which he had assumed the collection, fails. In this view, he could not, upon any sound principle of justice and equity, be compelled to pay what by no possibility be could collect. On any other principle, the importer would be held as the insurer of the Government against all risks whatever, which is no part of his undertaking, express implied. It would also oblige the importer, who had sustained an absolute and total loss, to make up to the Government that which, in the ordinary course of trade, must prove to be no other loss than a temporary suspension of payment. The indemnity of the Government for a temporary loss of duties, arising from the destruction of goods, is in the fresh and increased importations, which will thereby be rendered indispensable. More than this could not be exacted without taking improper advantage of the misfortune of the citizen, and injuriously burdening the foreign commerce of the country. It would be applying to the system of indirect taxation, always entitled, from the imminent perils and risks incident to its enterprise, to the utmost liberality, a principle of rigor which, in the remission of the duties upon the distilled spirits, already cited, has been expressly disclaimed in the system of excise.

The undersigned would respectfully suggest, also, that the exaction from the importer of duties upon goods destroyed by inevitable accident while entitled to the benefit of drawback, and before entering into the mass destined for the home consumption, would be even more rigorous than the rule uniformly adopted in Great Britain, whose system is admitted to be much less liberal than ours. According to that system, though the duties are nominally payable in cash, the credit is in fact longer in all cases than is allowed in the United States, and the time for drawback is, at least, of equal duration. That being a system of warehousing, the goods, on their importation, are deposited in the public or private warehouses until withdrawn for foreign exportation or for home consumption; and, in the latter case, the duties are paid when the commodities are withdrawn. The importer is allowed the period of three years to withdraw them for either purpose. If the goods, in the mean time, should be destroyed by inevitable accident, although the Government refuse to become the insurer for their safety, and to indemnify the merchant for his whole loss, it has been uniformly considered that the duties are not recoverable. Under the English system, therefore, as in every other well-regulated system of impost, the duties are not considered as finally recoverable until the goods have passed into the consumption, provided that be done within the period allowed for the drawback. In England they are considered as having lost the drawback, and entered into consumption, when they are withdrawn from the warehouses for any other purpose than foreign exportation.

In applying this reasonable principle to the impost in the United States, it is only necessary to settle at what time imported goods are to be considered as finally passing into, the consumption of the country. According to the system in England, the presumption arises from the fact of removing the commodity from the warehouses, because, those being the general and convenient depositories of the importer, as well as of the Government, the goods are seldom withdrawn until actually sold. It is believed, however, that no such presumption can arise from the delivery of the merchandise to the importer in the United States, either upon his bond, or on the payment, in advance, of the cash duties. For three years thereafter, the importer retains the right of exportation of any part for the drawback, and that option he may exercise at any time within that period, and cancel his bond, or have his duties refunded; and during this period it is impossible to say at what time, or what quantity of the goods the owner may export or dispose of for home consumption. This is one of the most important of the privileges conferred upon the merchant by our system; and the extension of time allowed by Congress, where the exportation of the goods had been prevented by the embargo, shows the importance with which it is regarded by the Government. The same inference arises from the frequent extension of time by the Secretary of the Treasury, if from unavoidable accident the requisite formalities have not been complied with in season. To deprive the owner of the privilege thus secured, where, by inevitable accident, he is prevented from exercising his option within the regular period, Congress, by its legislation, has admitted would be unjust. But to assume the unavoidable destruction of the goods, within that period, by fire, to be such a consumption, is not only to destroy the right of drawback, but also to authorize the collection of the duties would only accumulate the distresses of the merchant, and effectually complete his ruin.

It is not so much for the accommodation of the importer, as for the ease and convenience of the Government, that warehouses are not established, and that bonds and cash payments in advance are substituted in the United States. Public warehouses, according to the system in England, would be, in many respects, a positive accommodation to the importer, especially in regard to those commodities liable to, cash duties. If the system in the United States be treated as mutually for the accommodation of the Government and the importer, which is the most favorable view that can be taken of it for the Government, the safety of each should be mutually consulted, and the spirit of the system should always be liberally enforced. The basis of the system, however, in the United States, is not only mutual advantage, but is also founded in mutual confidence-in the confidence entertained by the Government in the fairness and integrity of the merchant, which leads him to consider his liabilities for duties as among the most sacred of his obligations; and in the confidence felt by the importer that the Government, reasonably confiding in his fairness and probity, will never take advantage of misfortunes which no purity of intention, or any precaution whatever, could prevent. The superior working of this system is perceived in the very few instances of fraud, and those by the most obscure and irresponsible individuals, which are known to occur, and in the insignificant loss in the immense amount of duties annually secured; while in other countries, in which their systems are founded on a different basis, all the guards with which they are fenced round against designs which their own rigor has fostered are in numerous cases wholly unavailing.

According to our system, therefore, it would appear to be reasonable that, where it can be proved to the satisfaction of the Government that goods in the original packages, entitled to the benefit of drawback, are destroyed by unavoidable accident, the duties should not be exacted.

To the general reasoning here presented the undersigned does not perceive that any other plausible answer can be given, than the difficulty of obtaining the proof necessary to establish the facts, or the danger of fraudulent claims. It would appear, indeed, that the justice of the principle had not only been already admitted and expressly recognised, but that the difficulty of proof had been encountered, and both that and the danger of fraud often surmounted by Congress. The remission of the duties upon the salt destroyed by flood in the night of the day on which it was stored is an explicit recognition of the principle, although there the danger of fraud nor the difficulty of proof could have been serious. But in remitting the duties upon the hemp duck, they proceeded a step further, and allowed testimony to prove the destruction of the goods on board a vessel on her passage up the Hudson. In the relief granted on account of the destruction by fire of the coffee originally imported into Norfolk, and thence shipped to Baltimore, and there, consumed some time after its arrival; of the distilled spirits alleged to be remaining in the still when burnt, if it should be proved to be so to the satisfaction of the supervisor, and on account of the damaged glass, they not only entered into an examination of cases extremely liable to fraud, (if there had existed an intention to commit it,) but also extremely difficult of proof, and finally, becoming satisfied of the justice and hardship of the claims, granted full relief .

The circumstances which have rendered necessary the present application to Congress are such as in their nature preclude the possibility of fraud, or even of negligence or inattention, as leading to the calamity; and it is also impossible that any fraud can be committed, unless in preferring claims for goods which were in, fact not destroyed in the original packages. Against such attempts, the best security of the Government will be found in its own discretion of the nature of the proof it may require to satisfy it that the loss has been sustained. The difficulty of making the proof is imposed entirely upon the claimant. It will be his misfortune if he fail to make proof to the satisfaction of the Government; and, indeed, in. the acknowledged probity and uprightness of the American merchant, and in the value he places upon an unsuspected reputation in his dealings, confident reliance may be placed that no fraudulent claim will be attempted by him.

The undersigned would express the hope, however, that under circumstances so disastrous, and a calamity so widespread as the present, so notorious in all of its circumstances, and producing unparalleled desolation among so many citizens immediately engaged in that commerce from which the public revenue is derived, and from which it has heretofore been punctually collected, the Government will not be deterred, by the apprehension of fraud which may be prevented, or of difficulty easy to be surmounted, or even by the magnitude of the task, from instituting the proper investigation.

The undersigned would also desire to state it as the opinion (in which he concurs) of the most intelligent and practical of his fellow-citizens, that there does exist the means of obtaining satisfactory proof of all that is necessary to be known in a great majority of cases; and that, if authority for that purpose should be vested in the Secretary of the. Treasury, or in commissioners specially appointed, such an investigation might be made as would be satisfactory to the Government and to the individuals concerned. An authority of equal extent, with perhaps less means of proof, is already vested, by. existing laws, in the Secretary of the Treasury for the correction of inaccurate or irregular invoices, for dispensing with formalities in exportations for drawback, and in the extensive power to remit all fines, penalties, and forfeitures, where it shall be proved to his satisfaction that there was no intention of fraud.

The undersigned confidently trusts, therefore, that, in a case so peculiar and important as the present, Congress will adopt some mode by which the amount of goods destroyed by the late fire, in the original packages, and entitled to drawback, may be satisfactorily ascertained, and by which, when so ascertained, the duties thereon may be remitted.

In regard to the extension of credit on all existing. bonds payable after the 16th instant, the undersigned need scarcely add any remarks to invoke the justice and liberality of Congress. The natural and forcible appeal which a suffering debtor, suddenly overtaken by unexpected and extraordinary misfortune, may, in all eases, make to the forbearance of his opulent and more fortunate creditor, may be made with irresistible force to the Government. A large capitalist, with an overflowing Treasury, and whose peculiar duty it is to promote the welfare and prosperity of the people, it can see nothing in any apprehension of its own necessities to restrain either its obligations of duty or its liberality. An appeal of no less force is also made by its own true interests, which mainly consist in succoring and preserving a great community, on the enterprise of which it is in a great degree dependant for the extent of its foreign commerce, and the supply of its Treasury. On this head of relief the precedents are too numerous and of too uniform a character to need any particular reference. They not only justify the extension now asked for, but remain, perhaps, as causes of regret that the broad but just principle of remission has not been more frequently recognised and adopted.

In relation to the third request, for a temporary extension of cash and other duties on goods imported into the United States subsequent to the 16th instant, it may be remarked that, in consequence of the positive destruction of so much property, and of the national wealth and capital, the enterprise of all classes of this community must be materially paralyzed. The destruction of so large a quantity of foreign goods, destined either for the foreign exportation or home consumption, must necessarily augment the importations of the next two years to supply the loss; and without some temporary restoration of the capital which has been annihilated, these objects cannot easily be accomplished. This calamity has materially changed the state of things under which Congress were induced to make certain duties payable in cash, and to reduce the credit on others, and creates, in a great degree, the same want of capital which originally recommended a more prolonged credit. It may also be observed that, of the commodities destroyed by the recent fire, a great part consisted of such as, by existing laws, are either liable to cash duties, or entitled only to a short credit.

In connexion with this subject, it is but just to consider that, of all the importations of foreign goods into the United States, nearly two-thirds are imported into the port of New York; and that, therefore, from a wise regard to the interests of other parts of the Union, and to its own future revenue, it would be the interest of the Government to afford such facilities as will invigorate so important a source of the national means.

The request for the investment of a portion of the unappropriated surplus revenue of the United States, in such funds and in such manner as will afford relief to the city of New York, does not require any particular observation.

It appears from the report of the Secretary of the Treasury to both Houses of Congress at their present session, that there may be a considerable surplus, which he recommends should be invested in some other manner than with the deposit banks or other fiscal agents of the Treasury, for a short period, as a provident fund to meet any contingency arising from the great reduction of the revenue in the year l842. Should Congress concur in this suggestion, it is presumed that the surplus could not be so advantageously applied as in succoring the enterprise of such a port as that of New York, so important to the commerce, both domestic and foreign, of the United States, and so necessary in supplying the national revenue. Such an investment would not only accomplish all the objects contemplated by the Secretary of the Treasury, but greatly contribute to avert, if not altogether to prevent, any future diminution in the amount of the revenue.

Upon this point, the undersigned need only add his confident belief that, for the prompt payment of such portion of the surplus as it may be the pleasure of Congress to invest for the benefit of this city, unquestionable and satisfactory security can be given.

With these observations, the undersigned has performed the important duty confided to him by his fellow-citizens He commits this application to Congress with that firm reliance which an American citizen is proud to repose upon the wisdom, justice, and liberality of the Legislature of the Union; and with an earnest hope that, yielding to no mistaken apprehension of dangers not likely to arise, or which may be effectually guarded against, they will consent to execute the laws of the impost according to their true spirit, and in a manner not to augment, but to alleviate, the misfortunes of the citizens.

And your memorialist will, &c.


Chairman of the Committee of Citizens.

NEW YORK, December 24, 1835.



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