“No man is an island.” The Lighthouses of the United States

The development of the lighthouse in the United States, particularly in the New England states is a lesson in the doctrine of federalism, a lesson in the history of early colonial America.

In the beginning, America was a confederation of separate colonies. Each had its own coinage, import and export policies, and separate obligations to provide for the common defense. Under the Articles of Confederation, the obligations of the colonies were spelled out with no obligation on the part of the colonies as a whole to defend an attack on one colony and no ability of the confederation to impose taxes on all of the colonies as a whole.

Upon the adoption of the Constitution, the federal government had certain specified powers. But to the extent no specific power was vested in the federal government, such power was vested in the states or in the individual. This was a unique change in government. The people governed themselves through the right to vote and on the limitations placed on government itself by the people.

When the thirteen colonies under the new Constitution saw the need for lighthouses to guide ships along the Atlantic coast, there was no power vested in the new Congress to impose taxes and build lighthouses. Such power appeared to be reserved to the states and to the individual. Eventually, Congress reached a compromise. If the States provided the land, the federal government through the Army Corps of Engineers would provide the lighthouse and its keeper.

The idea of shared power and responsibility would grow to include a broad range of powers and responsibilities under the Commerce Clause, the Common Defense clause, and the Common Welfare clause.

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