Segment from In Plain Sight

Beacons to the World

Historian Allen Miller tells Brian how lighthouses in the early republic projected not only light but federal power.

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BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re talking about how some of America’s key infrastructure took shape. It’s a topic that’s been in the news a lot recently, and that’s in part because Congress is once again trying to find a long-term source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund. That’s the money that states rely on to maintain the roads and mass transit systems. In May, lawmakers once again agreed on a short-term fix to keep the fund solvent, with many of them reluctant to commit to a more permanent solution that would involve raising gas taxes.

PETER: It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the nation’s early days, when politicians were able to bridge their differences and find the money for infrastructure projects that benefited everybody. Now, not all infrastructure projects fit this bill. Roads and canals, for instance, benefited some regions more than others, and so they tended to be controversial. Lighthouses, now– there’s something Americans could all get behind.

BRIAN: In 1790, Congress voted to take over the nation’s lighthouse system, which had been run locally. In a world built on sea trade, these lighthouses were crucial navigation aids. But historian Allen Miller says that for Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, lighthouses had another less tangible appeal.

ALLEN MILLER: From a larger point of view, lighthouses allow Hamilton– or help Hamilton– do something that’s important to him, which is stitch these local state and regional economies into a national economy. Lighthouses promote interstate and inter-regional commerce, and that is a big priority for Hamilton. He sees it as a means of creating much greater adhesion between the states and between the regions.

I think they also saw it as something that gave them an opportunity to create a greater presence of the federal state itself, at a time when it was kind of a vague image in people’s minds. Very few physical representations of the state itself. I suppose you could say it’s a little ironic, because many of the lighthouses that the federal government builds in the first decade or two after they take control of the system are in what we might think of as terrestrially remote locations, far away from cities, from settlements.

BRIAN: So what’s a good example of one of those remote lighthouses that would loom large to anybody needing to navigate for national commerce?

ALLEN MILLER: Well, the first lighthouse that’s actually built under federal control– and actually the first federal works project of any kind– is the Cape Henry lighthouse, which is at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. When the federal government takes over the lighthouse system, there’s a gap of almost 500 miles without any lighthouse between the mouth of Delaware Bay and Charleston Harbor in South Carolina.


ALLEN MILLER: And between 1791 and 1794, the federal government builds three lighthouses at points equidistant within that 500 mile gap. From the point of view of mariners, from the point of view of commerce, they very clearly link a variety of locations into a national commercial network.

BRIAN: When we look at a lighthouse today, frankly I always wonder what the postcard version of that lighthouse is. It looks really lonely. It’s just standing out there all by itself, and I have no notion looking at it that it’s part of this national system. Yet it seems like the lighthouses you’re talking about were every bit as much a part of a national system as the radar stations are today for air traffic control. Is that the case?

ALLEN MILLER: Absolutely. And as I said, one of the first things the federal government does is build these series of lighthouses along the coast at fairly regular intervals. Not only are they at regular intervals, they follow a fairly standard design, in terms of their octagonal shape, general sort of proportions. It’s really very striking how similar these buildings are.

And I believe that the federal government is consciously trying to project the idea that this is part of the federal state. This is an example of sort of best practices that the useful arts of America have to offer. And they should be understood as something that demonstrates the state’s credibility and competence and, to a great extent, the potential longevity of the state as well.

BRIAN: The message they illuminated was “your tax dollars at work.”


ALLEN MILLER: Yeah, and I think probably the idea that we’re going to be here for a long time. And also we are here to serve a purpose. We are a benevolent presence in a dangerous world.

BRIAN: What do you think today’s symbol of the national government’s presence in the infrastructure is? What’s the comparable symbol to the lighthouse back in the 18th century?

ALLEN MILLER: I’m tempted to say a crumbling bridge on the interstate.

BRIAN: Oh, ouch. Ouch. I fear that you might be right, Allen. Well, thank you for joining us on BackStory today.

ALLEN MILLER: It’s my pleasure, Brian.

BRIAN: Allen Miller teaches history at Lancaster Country Day School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.