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On December 15, 1836, the resolution of Mr. Benton, of Missouri, that "the annual statement of the commerce and navigation of the United States be hereafter printed under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury, and be communicated in printed form as soon as possible after the commencing of each stated session of Congress," was adopted by the Senate.
Notwithstanding the discussions leading up to the establishment of the Department of the Interior, very few of the commercial and industrial agencies of Government were put under the control of that department, most of them remaining under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Treasury.
The movement for the creation of an additional executive department, following the establishment of the Interior Department, took many and varied phases. The names proposed in the different bills to establish a new department indicate their provisions. These names included the following titles, grouped together in various ways: Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Industries, Manufactures, Patents, Mining, Navigation, Transportation, and Mechanics.
The first industries of the country to be accorded an executive department by the Congress were those of agriculture, when the Department of Agriculture, established by act of May 15, 1862, was constituted an executive department, with a Secretary of Agriculture (eighth member of the Cabinet), by the act of February 9, 1889. The commercial and manufacturing interests of the country, as far as governmental supervision and cooperation were concerned, were left to offices distributed among the several departments. The business of government increased in volume as the country grew in age, and during the last half of the nineteenth century the work of the fiscal branch of the Treasury so absorbed the attention of the head of that department that his supervision of commercial matters had lost the importance it had enjoyed under the first Secretary of the Treasury.
Commercial conventions at Detroit in 1865, and at Boston in 1868, and the National Board of Trade in 1874, memorialized the Congress for the establishment of a Department of Commerce, in order that the rapidly increasing volume of capital invested in commerce and manufactures might be the subject of governmental aid and supervision. Many similar petitions were later presented to the Congress, and the subject was referred to in several political platforms and annual messages of the President. These petitions, and the representatives of commercial organizations before the committees of Congress, stated that the United States was a distinctly commercial and industrial nation; that the Twelfth Census showed the aggregate value of the products of the manufacturing establishments of the United States, during the census year ended June 1, 1900, to exceed thirteen billion dollars, which is probably nearly four times the aggregate value of all the products of agriculture during the same year; that the same arguments advanced for the creation of the Department of Agriculture were applicable to one for the commercial and industrial life of the country; that the manufacturing interests in the United States exceeded in volume and importance the industrial interests of any nation in the world, and yet there was no Government office specially charged with any duties relating directly to them, and that in this respect the United States was almost alone among the nations of the world; that agriculture, labor, transportation, mining, fisheries, and forestry all had distinct recognition in one form or another, but not so with the manufacturing interests.
The country's need for a Department of Commerce, which had become national in scope in 1874, was forced to give way temporarily in order that all the energy of the commerce committees of Congress might be centered upon the eradication of the transportation evil of rebates. This resulted in the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887.
The movement for the establishment of the Department gathered headway, however, and in the Fifty-seventh Congress legislation providing for its organization was enacted. The legislative history of the act creating the Department appears in the Congressional Record for that Congress, and, while interesting, is too extended for more than the briefest outline here.
On December 4, 1901, Senator Nelson introduced in the Senate a bill (S. 569) "To establish the Department of Commerce," which was read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce; on January 9, 1902, the bill was reported with certain amendments (S. Rept. No. 82, 57th Cong., 1st sess.). The discussion on the bill began in the Senate on January 13, was continued on January 16, 20, 22, 23, 27, and 28, and the bill passed the Senate with a number of amendments, including one changing the name to "Department of Commerce and Labor," on the last-named date.
The act was received in the House and referred to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce on January 30, 1902. On January 6, 1903, the committee submitted a report (H. Rept. No. 2970, 57th Cong., 2d sess.) recommending that the bill of the Senate (S. 569) be amended by striking out all after the enacting clause and substituting in lieu thereof an entirely new bill. The House bill, however, embraced most of the features contained in the Senate bill, the main contention being as to what bureaus should be embraced in the new Department.
On January 15, 1903, the bill was taken up under a special continuing order to be considered until finally disposed of in Committee of the Whole House on the state of the Union. On January 17 the debate was concluded in the House and the bill was passed.
The bill was in due course sent to a committee of conference. (For Senate proceedings see Congressional Record of January 19 and 29, and February 10 and 11, 1903, and for House proceedings see Record of January 29 and February 9 and 10, 1903.) The conference report was agreed to in the House on February 10 and in the Senate on February 11, and the bill was signed by the President on February 14, 1903.
Thus the Secretary of Commerce and Labor became the ninth member of the President's Cabinet.
The labor interests first received recognition in the establishment of the Bureau of Labor under the act of Congress approved June 27, 1884; this Bureau was constituted the Department of Labor, and the Commissioner of Labor was continued in charge, by the act of Congress approved June 13, 1888. By the act of February 14, 1903, the Department of Labor was on July 1, 1903, transferred to the Department of Commerce and Labor, and made a bureau thereof. By the act of March 4, 1913, the name of the Bureau was changed to "Bureau of Labor Statistics," and by the same act it was transferred to and made a part of the new Department of Labor, the head of which became the tenth member of the President's Cabinet. The act of March 4, 1913, transferred also from the Department of Commerce and Labor to the Department of Labor the Commissioner General of Immigration, the commissioners of immigration, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, the Division of Information, the Division of Naturalization, the Immigration Service at Large, and the Children's Bureau. Also the Division of Naturalization was created an independent bureau, and the title of the head thereof was changed from Chief, Division of Naturalization, to "Commissioner of Naturalization." The act of March 4, 1913, also changed the designation of the Department of Commerce and Labor to "Department of Commerce," and the title of the Secretary was changed to "Secretary of Commerce."
It may appear strange that one hundred and fourteen years elapsed before a Department of Commerce became a reality, when its need was felt and its value recognized at the very beginning. The answer is ready. Conservative action on the important subject of increasing the number of executive departments has been the rule of the Congress. The name "Department of Foreign Affairs" was changed to "Department of State" in order that the field of that department might be enlarged and the creation of a home department avoided; the naval affairs were consolidated with those of the Army to make unnecessary a separate Department of the Navy. In this grouping in one department of matters that would logically form two, it was but natural that commerce and finance should at first abide together. The tendency of the national legislature to follow and not lead in enlarging the executive side of government compelled the Department of Commerce to wait, as each of £he older departments in its turn had waited, until the demand for the legislation became paramount and unanimous, and until the field of its activity was already so large and the appeal so urgent that none but an affirmative answer could be given.
The initial step in the organization of the Department was the appointment, by the President, of George B. Cortelyou as the first Secretary on February 16, 1903; the nomination was confirmed by the Senate on the same day, and the Secretary, after taking the oath of office on the 18th, established temporary headquarters at the White House.
The temporary headquarters were later moved to the building known as the Builders' Exchange, at 719-721 Thirteenth Street NW., where, in a large room divided by partitions, the work of organization was begun on March 16, 1903, though a Commissioner of Corporations, Chief Clerk, and Disbursing Clerk had been appointed prior to that date. A few weeks later the Willard Building, which was then under construction at 513-515 Fourteenth Street NW., was rented by the Department, and the Secretary, with as much of his force as was organized, moved in as soon as the building was completed. This building has ever since been the headquarters of the Department, though such of its bureaus as it has been impracticable to accommodate there have been located about the city wherever suitable quarters could be found. The Department has, however, entered into a lease for a building which was designed especially for its needs and is now being erected at Nineteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW., where it will probably be located until its proposed new building is erected by the Government on the site which has already been acquired south of Pennsylvania Avenue between Fourteenth and Fifteenth Streets NW.
On the morning of June 17, 1903, under the auspices of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Nation's flag was raised for the first time over the new Department, and its headquarters was formally placed in commission. The entire personnel of the Department assembled at the flagstaff on the roof with a committee of the Grand Army of the Republic to witness the ceremony. Brief addresses were made by Judge I. G. Kimball, department commander. Grand Army of the Republic, and Secretary Cortelyou.
The law creating the Department transferred to it on July 1, 1903, certain departments and bureaus which had theretofore been independent offices or under the older executive departments, and this important date in the life of the new Department was marked by the assembling in the office of the Secretary of its general officers and a number of distinguished guests. The speakers on this occasion were Rev. Franklin Noble; Rev. D. J. Stafford; Secretary Moody, of the Navy Department; S. N. D. North, Director of the Census; and H. B. F. Macfarland, Commissioner of the District of Columbia.
Secretary Cortelyou made an address in which he recounted the work of preliminary organization, and spoke of the great opportunities before the Department in aiding and guiding the commerce and industries of the country and of the principles upon which the Department would administer the laws defining its powers. In closing, he said:
No other department has a wider field, if the just expectations of the framers of the legislation are realized. None will have closer relations with the people or greater opportunities for effective work. While we can not dedicate a new and imposing structure to the uses of the Department, we can at least, and I am sure we all do, dedicate ourselves to the work which Chief Executives have recommended and Congress in its wisdom has set apart to be done. In this spirit I have thought it altogether fitting and proper that we should have these brief exercises, and that in them we should emphasize the fact that if we are to have the highest success as a nation in our commercial and industrial relations, whether among ourselves or with other peoples, we must keep ever to the front and dominant always those sturdy elements of character and the dependence upon Divine guidance which were so signally shown by the founders of the Republic, and to which we can not too often revert in these busy and prosperous times which make memorable for us the opening years of the new century.
The Department of Commerce, as at present constituted, in addition to the offices and divisions in the immediate Office of the Secretary, consists of the Bureau of the Census, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Bureau of Corporations, the Bureau of Fisheries (to which the administration of laws and regulations governing Alaskan fur-seal and salmon fisheries and fur-bearing animals has been assigned), the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce (which has among its duties the direction of the work of commercial agents at home and abroad), the Bureau of Lighthouses and the Lighthouse Service, the Bureau of Navigation (under which are the Shipping and Radio Services), the Bureau of Standards, and the SteamboatInspection Service.
Most of these bureaus and services were transferred to the Department on July 1, 1903, by the act of February 14, 1903, known as the organic act. The Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Bureaus of Lighthouses (formerly the Lighthouse Board), Navigation, and Standards, and the Steamboat-Inspection Service were previously under the Treasury Department and the Bureau of the Census was in the Interior Department, while prior to July 1, 1903, the Bureau of Fisheries was an independent office (not assigned to any department). The Alaskan fur-seal fisheries also were formerly in the Treasury Department.