Alexander Hamilton and Lighthouses

Source: Record Group 26, National Archives, Waltham, Massachusetts (Click on image for larger version.)
Source: Record Group 26, National Archives, Waltham, Massachusetts (Click on image for larger version.)

While working in my digital research library, I recently revisited several letters written by the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. As you know, the Secretary of Treasury oversaw lighthouses in the early years of the new republic, with frequent oversight from President Washington.

These letters were written to Benjamin Lincoln, the first customs collector in Boston, who, as the letters indicate, became the first superintendent of lighthouses for the state of Massachusetts. Copied from Record Group 26 during a 2001 visit to the Boston Regional Branch of the National Archives, the first letter is dated March 10, 1790, and the second July 14, 1790. In the March 10th communication Hamilton described Lincoln’s new duties as “keeping in good repair the Light houses, beacons, buoys and public piers in your State, and for the furnishing of same with necessary supplies.”

The letter also instructed Lincoln to confirm the appointments of four keepers who were already keeping the lights at Boston Harbor, Cape Ann, “Plumb” Island, and Nantucket. Hamilton mentioned the “widow of the late General Warren” as keeping the lights at Plymouth. I believe he was actually referring to Hannah Thomas, widow of John Thomas. When General John Thomas went off to fight in the Revolution he left his wife Hannah in charge of the twin lights at the entrance to Plymouth Harbor. Our book Women Who Kept the Lights begins with a chapter on Hannah, the first known female lighthouse keeper in the U.S. The July 14 letter shown here indicates that Hannah’s son John Thomas, Jr., received the appointment at Plymouth. He set their salaries based on what the Colony of Massachusetts had been paying them. The Boston keeper received $400, Plymouth $240, Cape Ann $400, Plumb Island $220, and Nantucket $250.

In his correspondence to Lincoln, Hamilton also touches on Portland Head, then part of Massachusetts. That lighthouse was under construction when the letter was written. Photo copyright Candace Clifford

Here is the March 10th letter in PDF format: Hamilton’s letter of March 10 1790

Candace Clifford, May 9, 2015


  1. David Gamage says:

    Interesting in this document Hamilton lays out the groundwork for what would become the management guidelines for what would later become Pleasanton’s responsibilities and that of the Customs Collectors in the later years that these Customs Collectors whose primary jobs were to collect revenues would secondarily be expected to provide local supervision of lighthouse operation, lighthouse contracts, etc. This a “business model” that would become ineffective to properly manage an expanding system of lights and other navigation aids. This may be compared to assigning current responsibility for aids to navigation to the IRS.

  2. Paul says:

    Hamilton was 35 at this time (wrote the Federalist Papers 3 years before). Apparently the Mass. Superin. recommended Hannah to continue based on performance (“nominal or real” – apparently real) and community acceptance. And with no reduction in pay from her husband’s (slight assumption here since don’t know from this what followed). Nice work, Candace. In 1990-91 when the National Bank of Washington failed (S&Lcrisis) they had an auction at the main branch 14th &F NW which was to include at least on letter from Hamilton – I missed it.

  3. Lanette Spranzo Macaruso says:

    Hi Candace,

    These are compelling posts, Candace. Thank you. Reading every word!

    1. Lanette, Thanks for your positive feedback! Candace

  4. Nicole says:

    Thank you for this informative post. I thought you might find an article that I wrote about Alexander Hamilton and Lighthouses of interest to you as well:

  5. […] lighthouse authorized by the Department of the Treasury was not the Hatteras lighthouse but the Boston light as well as several other lighthouses in New England. That may not challenge the story, but it complicates […]

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