Washington DC – The Treasury Department

DURING the session of the First Congress under the Constitution, in 1789, an act was passed to establish the Treasury Department, which was to have the entire charge of the finances of the government. Previous to that time commissioners had performed the duties appertaining to the collection of public moneys and the settlement of public accounts, but there had been no well-regulated and competent system. By the new act the officials authorized were a Secretary of the Treasury, who was to be the financial head of the government, and to have a seat in the President’s Cabinet ; an assistant secretary, a comptroller, an auditor, a treasurer, and a register. When the government removed to Washington in i800, a small wooden building was erected for the Treasury, but it was burned to the ground by the British troops in 1814. Another building was speedily constructed, and remained until March 31, 1833, when it was entirely destroyed by fire. It was proposed to locate the present Treasury Building farther down the tract on which the other buildings had been erected, in order that the White House might be seen from the Capitol ; but the story is that President Jackson became impatient at the delay of Robert Mills, the architect, in selecting a location, and walked over the ground one morning, planted his cane in the extreme northeastern cornet., and said, ” Here, right here, I want the corner-stone laid!” And the stone was laid there, and the huge structure was erected where it breaks the continuity of Pennsylvania Avenue, and prevents the President from looking toward Capitol Hill from the windows of his residence.

In 1841 the Treasury Building was completed. It was constructed of Virginia freestone, and on its eastern facade a lofty colonnade of thirty Ionic columns was placed. In 1855 it was found necessary to add extensions, and designs for these were made by Thomas U. Walter. The extensions were constructed of Maine granite, and were finished in 1869. At that time the total cost of the building was nearly $7,000,000, and since then large sums have been expended in alterations and interior decorations. The building extends four hundred and sixty feet on Fifteenth Street, and has a frontage of two hundred and sixty-four feet on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is Grecian in architecture, with various modifications. Over a rustic basement are three stories, surmounted by a balustrade. There are four facades, those on the north, west, and south having massive porticoes of Ionic columns. The walls of the extensions are composed of pilasters, with belt courses, resting on the basement story. The massive pilasters, monolithic columns, and blocks of granite were quarried on Dix Island, near Rockland, Maine, and brought to Washington in vessels of peculiar construction. Each portico has a broad flight of steps descending to a spacious platform, on each side of which is a flower-garden. The northern front is ornamented with a stone fountain. The building is very substantial, and its great size and the superb architectural design of its extensions, give it a majestic appearance. Seemingly, it should be large enough for any possible business that the Treasury Department might have to do, but this is not the case. It is far too small, and at present some of the Treasury bureaus have to be accommodated elsewhere for lack of room in this vast structure.

If the business of the department continues to increase during the next ten years as rapidly as it has the past ten, greater extensions to the Treasury Building will be necessary to accommodate the force of employes which will be required for the financial service of the government. The country is growing so fast that, year by year, the business of the Treasury increases enormously. Fifty years ago a few men were able to attend to everything connected with the finances in quite an easy manner ; now an army of officials, clerks, and employes drive the work to the utmost of their strength, but are unable to dispose of it promptly, and there are many embarrassing accumulations. The settlement of some public accounts is often delayed for months, from sheer inability to cope with the work. Army paymasters’ accounts will average two years in settlement, so that a pay-master cannot know how he stands on the Treasury books until two years after he renders his accounts, and neither does the Treasury Department know until after the same period whether the paymaster has properly accounted for the thousands of dollars advanced to him for disbursement.

The Treasury Building contains nearly two hundred rooms, exclusive of the basement. Most of the rooms are spacious and well arranged, and those occupied by the principal officials are handsomely furnished. The halls and corridors are wide and well lighted, and all of the interior furnishing is substantial and often elegant. There is such a constant pressure of work, and so much of it is necessarily of a private, confidential nature, that but few of the rooms are accessible to visitors. Business with the divisions is usually done through the chief clerks, whose offices are open to the public. To inspect the money-vaults it is necessary to obtain a permit from the Treasurer of the United States. The building is crowded with employes, nearly three thousand persons performing service in it daily. Stringent rules are enforced for the government of this host of workers, and a rigid business system prevails in every division.

The rooms occupied by the Secretary of the Treasury, and the numerous divisions appertaining to what is called The Secretary’s Office,” are large and finely furnished. The Secretary, as a member of the Cabinet, has a compensation of $8,000 per year. There are two assistant secretaries who receive $4,500 each, and in the Secretary’s office are a chief clerk at a salary of $2,700, a stenographer at $2,000, and several chiefs of divisions at salaries averaging $2,500. There are also one hundred and thirty clerks, fifty of whom are women, and a large force of book-keepers, messengers, and others. The salary list is $495,000 per year. The Secretary’s office may be called ” the official division ” of the Treasury Department. It has special duties connected with the Secretary’s supervision of the sub-departments of the Treasury, but it is in a certain sense independent of them.

special suites of rooms, and have many officials, clerks, and employes, whose total compensation amounts to $2,500,000 per year. These are the principal divisions : The offices of the First Comp-troller and Second Comptroller, the Commissioner of Customs, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the Treasurer of the United States, the Register of the Treasury, the Comptroller of the Currency, the Director of the Mint, and the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Auditors. Then there are the offices of the Supervising Architect, who has charge of the erection of public buildings throughout the country ; the Light-house Board, the Bureau of Statistics, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Life-Saving Service, the Secret Service, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Revenue Cutter and Marine Hospital Service, the Construction of Standard Weights and Measures, and the Steamboat Inspection Service.

All the sub-departments are under the general supervision of the Secretary of the Treasury, and it must be admitted that this distinguished official has a great deal to engage his time and attention if he faithfully performs his duty. If a secretary carefully verifies everything in the sub-departments ; if he is determined to know all about the official acts of his subordinates—and many secretaries have been scrupulously particular in this respect—he must give all his time to the work, and even then he can hardly master the full details of the colossal transactions of the Treasury Department.

There are sub-treasuries in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, New Orleans, St. Louis, and San Francisco ; and mints in Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, Carson, Nevada ; and Denver, Colorado. Assay offices are also located in New York, Helena, Montana ; Boise City, Idaho ; Charlotte, North Carolina ; and St. Louis. All these financial institutions are under the supervision of the Secretary of the Treasury. They are of great mportance, and transact a very large business. They are sustained at a yearly cost of $1,556,000.

The First Comptroller is familiarly called ” the autocrat of the Treasury,” as he has been given remarkable power by Congress. He countersigns all the warrants on the Treasury for the payment of money, and not a dollar can be obtained unless his signature is on the warrant. He decides every matter of payment, and even if a claim has been passed by a department of the government, the claim-ant, be he the highest official, even the President of the United States, cannot receive what is due him unless the First Comptroller is satisfied that the claim is correct. It is supposed that this official was created when the Treasury Department was first organized, as a check upon the officials whose duty it was to audit claims ; and from time to time additional power has been given him by statute, so that now he has the final decision in regard to all payments, and can re-verse the decision of any official, and even refuse his signature to a warrant signed by the President or the Secretary of the Treasury. There is no appeal from his decision except to the courts. In fact, through the laws which give him absolute power, he can stand before the government money-vaults, and allow only what he thinks is proper to be paid out of them. The President can remove him from 0ffice, but he would find it difficult to explain why he removed an official for doing what Congress has authorized him to do, and particularly as Congress has deemed it necessary to make this official a check upon the Executive.

The salary ot the first Comtroller is $5,000 per year. He haS a deputy with a salary of $2,700, four chiefs of divisions with salaries of $2,100, and fifty-one clerks. Eighty-three thousand dollars are yearly expended for the maintenance of his office. The Second Comptroller has a salary of $5,000, and his office is provided with a large force of clerks.

In the offices of the auditors the accounts of the various departments of the government are examined, after which they are transmitted, with the vouchers, to the offices of the First Comptroller and Second Comptroller for final examination and approval. Each auditor examines the accounts of certain departments, and has full authority to approve or reject any account, subject to the final decision of the First Comptroller. The auditors have salaries of $3,600, and employ many clerks.

The Treasurer of the United States is in charge of the government funds. He receives and disburses all the public moneys, has the custody of the great money-vaults, holds the bonds deposited by the national banks to secure their circulating notes, issues new treasury notes and redeems old ones, is the custodian of the Indian trust funds, pays the interest on the public debt, and has numerous other duties. His salary is $6,000, and he is required to give a bond for the faithful performance of his duties in the sum of $150,000. There is an assistant treasurer with a salary of $3,600, and in the six divisions of the department there is a large force of accountants, cashiers, and clerks.

The money-vaults in which the government keeps its reserve lands are located in the basement of the Treasury Building. They are massive iron and steel structures, which are faithfully guarded night and day. There are other vaults on the first floor, near the cash-room, which contain the funds for current payments. In the different vaults and safes are millions of dollars in treasury notes, in gold and silver coins, and in United States bonds ” wealth beyond the potential dream of avarice ! ” The Treasurer of the United States is the custodian of this vast sum, is solely responsible for its safe keeping and proper disbursement ; and it can be truly said of him, that he can day by day indulge in the sight and touch of a larger amount of money than any other person in the country. If we could examine the great pile of bank-notes and bonds, and the bags of coins in the compartments of the vaults, we should find that they represented between four and five hundred millions of dollars.

In the first place, there are bonds held in trust for various purposes to the amount of about four hundred millions. Then there is national currency of the value of fifty or sixty millions to-day more, tomorrow less, as the payments and receipts cause the fund to increase or diminish. In the coin sections there are usually from twenty to forty millions in gold and silver, and this represents but a small fraction of the specie the government has on hand, as the greater portion is deposited in the sub-treasuries in other cities. Sometimes the vaults will contain many tons of the precious metals.

There never has been an attempt made to rob the Treasury, and it is believed that it would be an impossibility. A guard of sixty men, nearly all old soldiers, patrol the building day and night. The men are commanded by a captain and lieutenant, and are armed with revolvers of the largest and best variety. When the building is closed at night, every room is inspected, and if a safe is found unlocked an officer is placed in charge of it, and the person whose duty it was to lock it is sent for. After the inspection the guard is set, and a rigid discipline maintained until morning. The men patrol their beats every ten or fifteen minutes, and the lieutenant goes the rounds every two hours.

The redemption and counting division is a busy and interesting place. Here worn and mutilated bank-notes, retired from service, are examined and counted, previous to being destroyed. Every year national currency of the value of two hundred millions is counted, canceled, and destroyed. The counting is done by female clerks, many of whom acquire marvelous skill, and seldom, if ever, make a mistake in manipulating the great piles of valuable paper. Some of the clerks have been at the work for eight or ten years, and in that time have handled many millions of dollars. They sit at long tables, on which bank-notes are spread as thick as leaves in a forest. Package after package is opened, the notes are closely scrutinized and rapidly counted, and are then turned over to officials who cancel them by means of machines which punch them full of holes. Afterward the ” dead” currency is placed in water and thoroughly macerated, nothing remaining but a mass of paper-pulp. It is then given into the hands of a special officer, to be burned. The national currency received from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and from government depositories throughout the country, is also care-, fully counted and verified before it is accepted, and the amount certified to as correct.

In the redemption bureau a great deal of delicate work is done in verifying currency which has been partially destroyed by fire or other causes, and which has been sent to the Treasury to be exchanged for new notes. Ladies who are expert in this business take the mass of burned or otherwise damaged currency in hand, and with long, thin knives and powerful magnifying-glasses slowly and cautiously separate the pieces, and then endeavor to trace out each note alleged to be in the collection. Sometimes the entire amount can be thus verified, even if the notes were badly burned ; but usually from ten to thirty per cent. is lost to the owner from sheer inability to distinguish in the mass of debris anything that bears the slightest resemblance to a bank-note. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fact, an astonishing amount rendered worthless by various accidents are received every year, and the greatest of care is taken to redeem as much of the money as possible. One day a mass of cinders, the remains of a package of bank-notes of the value of $1,700, was received from Missouri for redemption. The money had been placed in a stove over night for safe keeping, and was entirely forgotten the next morning until after the fire was. lighted. The charred fragments were carefully collected, brought to the Treasury, and placed in the hands of one of the most expert ladies of the redemption bureau. She succeeded, after ten days of arduous labor, in identifying nearly eighty per cent. of the notes, and when their owner received the new money he was so delighted at his good fortune that he presented the skillful lady with a brand new one hundred dollar bill.

A curious case is related of the redemption of notes amounting to $2,091, which were found in a secret pocket in the undershirt of a German, who had died in a New York almshouse and had been buried in a pauper’s grave for three months. A relative of the supposed pauper arrived from Europe, and had his body disinterred, when the money was discovered. The condition of the notes, after they had been in contact with a decomposing body for such a length of time, can be imagined, and the lady to whom was assigned the duty of examining and verifying them was speedily deserted by her companions, and had the entire end of the apartment to herself. The work, although very disagreeable, was satisfactorily accomplished, and clean, new notes were returned to the German’s heir.

The cash-room of the Treasury is a large apartment on the first floor, beautifully constructed of polished marbles of a wide variety. It is a palatial banking-office, all its appurtenances being sumptuous and ornate. Here are a dozen cashiers who daily disburse great sums of money in the payment of warrants and checks to the creditors of the government. Usually there are ten or fifteen million dollars in the vaults to meet the requirements of the daily business. The cashing of a warrant for one million dollars is no unusual thing, and warrants for several millions are occasionally presented. On one occasion the pension office presented a warrant for ten millions, which was promptly cashed. Members of the Secret Service are constantly in the room to guard the treasure. By ascending to the second floor, visitors can enter the balcony which extends around the cash-room, and watch the cashiers make the payments, enjoying, if only for a few moments, the sight of a great deal of money.

The national currency is manufactured at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is located in a large brick building on the Mall at the corner of Fourteenth and B streets southwest. The building is of the Romanesque style, and was erected at a cost of $300,000. It has three stories and a high basement, and on the northeast end is a tall tower of handsome design. The interior is constructed in a very elaborate and elegant manner. Visitors are permitted to inspect the different divisions of the bureau, and a guide is provided to conduct all who apply on ” the grand tour” of the rooms.

The entire third story is devoted to the printing division. Here are two hundred and fifty plate-presses, worked by hand, and a force of about five hundred men and women constantly engaged in printing sheets of bank-notes, bonds, and internal revenue stamps. In-tense activity prevails throughout the long, spacious room. Those who have the idea that government employes “take things easy,” should look at this host of energetic workers who waste not a moment, but with the untiring movement of a great machine, drive on the work they have to do. Each employe has to perform a certain fixed amount of work in a day—and the same is true of the employes in most of the departments of the public service and if it is not done the failure is recorded, and the employe stands in danger of dismissal. Six hundred sheets a day must be printed on each press, and when it is considered that every time an impression is taken the delicate copper and steel plate has to be removed from the press, carefully wiped dry, then polished with whiting, then inked, and all the ink rubbed off save that contained in the minute lines of the engraving, then put on to the press and the fibre paper laid on it expertly, some idea may be obtained of the labor necessary to print the number of sheets required each day. There is, indeed, no time allowed for loitering. To print a bank-note, three impressions are necessary. First, the centre picture or design on the back is printed ; then the border for the back, and then the face of the note. The sheets printed on each press bear the name of the pressman, and all bad impressions—those too light or too dark, or defaced in any way—are thrown out by the examiners, and recorded to the discredit of the pressman.

In the second story are the examining, lettering and numbering, and counting divisions. When the sheets of currency come from the press-room they are closely inspected by the examiners to detect imperfections, and those that are imperfect are thrown out and sent to the redemption bureau of the Treasury to be finally counted and destroyed. The perfect sheets are passed over to the employes in charge of the lettering and numbering machines, and the letters and numbers belonging to the series are printed on each note. When this process is finished the clean, crisp notes are given into the hands of a large force of women, who count them with marvelous celerity, after which they are taken to the basement story, where the red seal of the government is stamped on them. The new-made paper dollars are then deposited in the vaults of the bureau until they shall be conveyed to the Treasury in the guarded treasure-wagons. It requires about twenty-eight days to complete a lot of bank-notes of small denominations, aggregating five million dollars certainly a very short time to make so much money. The government is continually obliged to print new currency with which to redeem the worn-out notes that are all the time being sent to the Treasury by the national banks to be exchanged.

While the employes in the several divisions of the bureau are working, they are under the strict surveillance of officials stationed here and there throughout the rooms. Around each room is a high, closely-woven wire screen, completely enclosing the employes, and rendering it impossible for any of them to pass the sheets of currency to persons who may come into the corridors, even if they were so disposed. At the close of working hours no one is permitted to leave the building until the heads of the divisions have reported to the chief of the bureau that every printed and unprinted sheet, and every stamp, die, and plate have been properly accounted for.

The engraving division, in the basement, is fitted up with the best appliances for executing the fine plates required. Here is a massive vault used as a depository for all the plates and rolls, which at night are securely locked in it. The engravers are guarded by watchmen, lazily sitting in comfortable arm-chairs a few steps off, who keep their eyes fixed on the blocks of steel and copper being engraved, for here, as in the other divisions, all the employes are under surveil-lance very much as if they were inmates of a prison.

The Register of the Treasury, who has charge of the account-books wherein all the receipts and expenditures of the government are recorded, and the Comptroller of the Currency, who has charge of the national banks and their circulating notes, are important officials, and their divisions have numerous officials and employes. The Register has a salary of $4,000 per year, and the assistant register $2,250; the Comptroller has $5,000, and the deputy-comptroller,$2,800. The departments are very extensive. The Commissioner of Customs has a salary of $4,000, and the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, $6,000. The Director of the Mint, who has the supervision of the mints and assay offices, has a salary of $4,500.

A large amount of important and very beneficial work is performed by the Secret Service Office, which is in charge of a chief with a salary of $3,500, who reports to the Solicitor of the Treasury. Counterfeiting, and the numerous cunning devices employed to fraudulently obtain money and lands from the government, are investigated by the Secret Service agents, and evidence obtained to convict offenders. The office rooms in the Treasury Building contain an extensive museum of counterfeit bank-notes and coins, and the plates, dies, and moulds used by counterfeiters, and there are also collections of photographs of the fraternity. The office keeps a thorough record of cases and of men, and it can furnish the fullest information concerning hundreds of persons who are ranked among the dangerous classes. It is thought that the Secret Service does remarkably good work in the suppression of counterfeiting, when the extent of the country and the wide variety of the government money are considered. Many of the most skilled bank-note counterfeiters have been given long terms of imprisonment, and those who are at liberty are kept, as far as possible, under close surveillance. The greatest difficulty the Secret Service now has to contend with is the counterfeiting of silver coins, which is largely increasing, and proving very annoying to the government, as well as a matter of considerable loss to the public. Counterfeiters of silver money now pay great attention to the mixing of their metals, and the plating of the coin, and consequently the detection of the counterfeits is very difficult. There are imitations of the silver dollar and half-dollar in the possession of the Secret Service which are almost as perfect as the coins made in the United States mints, in weight, size, ring, and general appearance.

Unceasing efforts are made to discover the counterfeiters who work so much mischief. Not long since an entire family was captured in Vermont, father, mother, sons and daughters, and even the aged grandsire, all diligently laboring at the nefarious business. The coin-testers in the mints, whose duty it is to test each coin received, furnish a good deal of the information as to the counterfeits, particularly those which deceive bank officials and experts. A coin must be quite perfect to pass their test. They balance the coin on the top of the middle finger, and lightly tap its rim with the forefinger. Thousands of coins are tested by them, and they acquire wonderful skill, readily detecting the slightest false ring or ” rote,” as they term it. Counterfeit coins are also analyzed in the Treasury assay office, and their qualities given to the Secret Service agents, to aid them in their work.

The attic of the Treasury Building consists of a series of capacious rooms, halls, and corridors. Many of the rooms are filled with documents relating to the department and its multifarious transactions during the past threescore years. There are tons of written and printed papers cases reaching to the roof filled with reports, vouchers, letters, books, records, certificates of deposit, some of them yellow with age. In this vast documentary museum are hundreds of curious relics of by-gone days.