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Illuminating the Republic: Maritime Safety and the Federalist Vision of Empire

Federal lighthouses symbolized a vigorous young nation barreling toward maturity.

The national government under the Federal Constitution effectively began its reign on April 6, 1789, as an invisible and unremarkable presence in the lives of most ordinary Americans. The army boasted about 750 men stationed mainly on the western frontier, there were no national buildings, roads or even construction sites, while few federal bureaucrats and fewer elected officials dotted the political landscape. Scholar Allen Miller correctly observed that, at this early moment, “the federal state was merely a state of mind only on paper or in the imagination.” To remedy this, the Federalist administrations of the 1790s embarked on a series of ambitious public works programs to memorialize the national presence in the American consciousness. These early endeavors aimed to put the proverbial sinews on the skeletal framework of the young federal government.

Eager to promote the general welfare while attending to national security concerns, Federalists aimed to diversify the national economy and modernize the republic. Promoting maritime commerce and navigational safety became key to achieving these critical objectives. Aware of the dangers of naval and commercial navigation, the Washington administration initiated an aggressive campaign to nationalize existing lighthouses while constructing new ones on the darkened coasts of the United States. For Federalists, lighthouses came to embody national vision, federal competence and American empire during the 1790s. These partisans aimed to encourage domestic manufacturing to ween Americans off of their industrial dependence on foreign nations and eventually compete in the production of finished commodities, particularly military hardware. Anticipating increasingly busier ports and waterways, the national lighthouse project offered observers a clear window into Federalists’ commercial intentions and vision of empire. Successful construction of these buildings would not only reveal these aspirations, but also plainly advertise the new government’s ability to commence and complete its national ambitions. Finally, federal lighthouse construction showcased a visual permanence along American shores and projected a vigorous young nation barreling toward maturity.