When is a naval officer not a naval officer?
The question does not rest upon what the word “IS” means. Rather it pivots upon what the phrase “naval officer” can mean in two different circumstances. The fact that the same two words describe or denote two different offices is the source of the confusion.
At least I was confused when I first came upon the designation of “naval officer” when reading about the makeup of the US Customs Service in the 19th Century, and in this specific instance I was looking at the appointed officials of the Port of New York. The chief officer in charge was called the Collector, the one responsible for collecting the import tax due on any foreign goods entering via that port. These taxes were the only revenue for the US government from the inception of the country until the beginnings of an income tax which saw its introduction at the time of the American Civil War.
(Aside – the Port of New York at times supplied as much as two thirds of all the revenue, and never less than half of what was taken in by the US Treasury).
The Collector, therefore, was a very important position, and he was appointed directly by the President of the United States. In practice it was a political plum, awarded to a fellow member of the President’s political party, as thanks for his aid in a successful election campaign. The Collector in his turn appointed the officials that would serve with him – with titles such as Auditor, Appraiser, Weigher, and their assistants such as Deputy Collector, etc., and in the case at hand – the Naval Officer and his deputy.
Originally I thought that this Naval Officer must be an officer of the US Navy who had been assigned duty to help out the US Customs Service. It would seem a simple request for the Treasury Department (the branch of the US government controlling the Customs and Revenue services) to ask for the loan of an officer from the Navy Department. In a similar vein I had found many examples where Acting Midshipmen left the Naval Academy (usually by resignation or dismissal) and ended up in the Revenue Service to command the ships that agency employed to enforce customs law, to interdict smuggling and occasionally to aid in life-saving. But this was not the case. The Naval Officer in the Customs House was a civil appointment, and he had a particular purpose to fulfill. The position was designed as an important check and balance to the Collector. The naval officer had to sign off on all the transactions that his boss approved. That was the theory, but in practice the fact that they owed their position to the Collector colored their judgment when it came to what their boss was doing, a recipe for fraud and corruption
I learned more about all of this when looking into the father of Midshipman Morgan Lewis Ogden jr., the subject of my two recent Research posts. His father Morgan Lewis Ogden Sr. had been the deputy naval officer of the Port of New York, commencing in May of 1843. From his time at the New York Customs House, Ogden learned some valuable lessons about the workings of this agency. He parleyed that knowledge into a whole new profession after his time there.
Ogden was instrumental in the 1850 Supreme Court decision (US vs Southmayd) that changed the way duties were assessed “on all future importations of sugar and molasses.” He advised Benjamin F Butler, the lawyer who was hired to argue the case before the court. According to prior statute, the assessments were made on the weight stated on the invoice – prior to shipment. By the time the shipment arrived in New York the weight was always less due to leakage and drainage. You can understand the shipper’s sense of injustice when he was taxed on the portion that was lost in transit. Now thanks to this decision “the duties are to be levied upon the actual quantity arriving in the United States.”
Subsequent to this, Ogden became a claims attorney, representing firms or individuals with claims against the US government for overcharges on import taxes. He kept a home and office in Brooklyn, and also a home and office in Washington DC. One might say that he was a bit of a “fixer” in these matters for he had a lot of clout in both cities. And it did not hurt that his older brother Samuel Gouverneur Ogden was the Auditor of the New York Customs House between 1841 and 1878.
So, when is a naval officer not a naval officer? It’s a bit of a trick question. Both are. But a civil appointee who is a part of the Treasury Department is not the same as a commissioned officer in the armed services of the United States.
(Side note – I have found, so far, ten individuals who were appointed to the US Naval Academy in the ante bellum period with relatives that were Collectors in the Customs service. And only one who was related to a naval officer in the Customs Service).