Nathaniel Hawthorne's Career as a Customs Official
A look at Hawthorne's early struggles in relation to politics, money, and literature.
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Nathaniel Hawthorne's Career as a Customs Official
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Career as a Customs Official It is a curious fact that several of the world’s greatest literary figures, such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Robert Burns, served as customs officials. A third among them was the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who served twice in that capacity. His career in Customs provides a good illustration of the workings of the spoils system, the winner- take-all policy that governed the way federal employees were hired and fired for most of the 19th century.Under the spoils system, loyal supporters of winning candidates couldcount on being offered some kind of government position. As aDemocrat, Hawthorne’s chances of obtaining such a position were tiedto the fortunes of his political party. These took a favorable turn with theelection of Martin Van Buren to the Presidency in 1836. Hawthorne wasoffered an appointment as “weighter and gauger” at the Boston CustomHouse in 1839, at the comfortable salary of $1,500 a year.In the election of 1840, the Whigs were the victors, and the Democratsfound themselves out of power. The same spoils system that gotHawthorne his job at the Custom House also ended it. The loss may havecome as something of a shock. Hawthorne accepted an invitation to liveand work in a utopian socialist commune called Brook Farm, anuncharacteristic decision on the part of a man who was alwayssomething of a loner and a skeptic. He lasted barely half a year. Thatexperience was made use of several years later as the background ofhis third novel, The Blithedale Romance.By 1842, Hawthorne was earn ing enough from his literary endeavors tomarry Sophia Peabody and settle down with her in the town of Concord,Massachusetts, but with the birth of their daughter Una in 1844, it wasagain advisable to look for additional income. A federal appointmentbecame a real possibility that year when the Democrats regained thepresidency under the leadership of James K. Polk. The Hawthornesmoved to Salem in 1845, and the following year, President Polkappointed him to the position of Surveyor of the Port at the SalemCustom House. The salary was $1,200 a year.Like his previous position, this new one was secure only as long as hispolitical party maintained its grip on the reins of power. In 1848, theelection of Zachary Taylor as President meant that the Whigs were back.Hawthorne was dismissed from his post in 1849. On this occasion, he
struggled for reinstatement, writing a letter of protest that was publishedin the Boston Daily Advertiser. He asserted his qualifications for the post,and maintained that, as an apolitical man of letters, he should be exemptfrom the ravages of the spoils system. This was to no avail.In retrospect, Hawthorne’s short term misfortune, that of losing agovernment position, was to his long term benefit. As he conveyed thenews to his wife, she clapped her hands and said, “Now you can writeyour book.” When he asked what they would live on while he wrote it,Sophia turned to a bureau and opened up a drawer full of money. It wasthe savings that she had accumulated from his weekly wages whilemanaging the household budget, and it was enough to buy him the timeand leisure necessary for the writing of his masterpiece, The ScarletLetter.The prologue to The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850, is called TheCustom House. Hawthorne had previously written it as an independentsketch, but in its final form, it serves as a literary device that provides a“historical background” for the central story that follows. Towards the endof The Custom House, the narrator stumbles upon some old documentshidden in the second floor of the ancient building. These documentspurport to describe an official proceeding, and the narrator attempts tounfold the story that is contained within them, the tale of Hester Prynneand her neighbors in 17th century Puritan New England.The Custom House was more than simply an introduction toHawthorne’s most famous tale, and the public reaction to it was sharp. Itsdescription of his old place of business is full of mordant humor, and hiscomments on the spoils system was not appreciated by the thendominant Whigs.Despite the criticism provoked by the prologue, The Scarlet Letter was amajor success. It marked Hawthorne’s emergence as an important manof letters, provided him a degree of financial independence, and servedas a last look back at his career as a customs official.Originally published in the US Court of International Trades CourtCrier for December, 2012. at p.10. Minor changes have been made.Reprinted with permission.