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This Day in History: Birth of the United States Coast Guard

On this day in 1915, two agencies are consolidated into a new United States Coast Guard. Wait. If the Coast Guard began as late as January 1915, why is founding father Alexander Hamilton sometimes called the Father of the Coast Guard? And why does the Coast Guard consider its real birthday to be August 4, not January 28?

Unsurprisingly, the foundations for the Coast Guard were laid long before its technical start in 1915.

U.S. Coast Guard Ensign, which is flown from its ships.

In fact, President George Washington was there, right at the beginning. On August 4, 1790, he signed an act authorizing the construction of “so many boats or cutters, not exceeding ten” to “secure the collection of” tariffs. This system of cutters was known by various names over the years, including Revenue Service, Revenue-Marine, and the Revenue Cutter Service. Its job was to enforce federal trade laws and to fight smuggling along the coast. The cutters were placed under the control of the Treasury Department.

That’s how Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, got involved. You’ll love Hamilton’s early orders to his new commanding officers.

They are public servants, he reminded them. “[Officers] will always keep in mind that their countrymen are freemen,” he instructed, “and, as such, are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit. They will, therefore, refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult.”

The Revenue Marine cutters were the only armed ships protecting American waters until a regular navy was organized in 1798.

Creating a force to protect the American coast and prevent smuggling might seem like a no-brainer to us, but it was less obvious back in the 1790s. Americans feared a standing army, remember, and they weren’t any more enthusiastic about a standing navy. Thus, when the Continental Navy and Marines were demobilized at the end of the Revolution, it wasn’t clear to everyone what should be done.

In the end, at least two issues prompted Congress to act: First, the country’s trade laws were not being taken seriously. Let’s just say that Americans were kind of used to smuggling goods past British authorities. It was a hard habit to break. (Ha!) Second, American merchants were running into problems in international waters.

Privateers and pirates were seizing American ships. Something had to be done.

Thus, the Revenue Marine and (later) the U.S. Navy were organized. Although the main purpose of the Revenue Marine was to enforce federal trade laws, it also worked alongside the U.S. military as needed.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Congress couldn’t help but create many other, similar organizations over the years? In 1852, a Steamboat Inspection Service and a Lighthouse Board were created. In 1878, the U.S. Life-Saving Service was established. In 1884, the U.S. Bureau of Navigation was created. In 1910, the Lighthouse Board was abolished and replaced with the Bureau of Lighthouses.

The bill that was signed on January 28, 1915, consolidated the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service into one U.S. Coast Guard. In the years that followed, the Steamboat Inspection Service, the Bureau of Navigation, and the Bureau of Lighthouses (or their successors) were also incorporated into the Coast Guard.

Today, the Coast Guard is organized under the Department of Homeland Security, and it serves a dual mission: Its peacetime mission is law-enforcement and saving lives. Its wartime mission is to “constitute a part of the military forces of the United States.”

It has come a long way from a small force of only ten cutters, hasn’t it?

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