Hamilton's 'U.S. Coast Guard' Grand Experiment
"A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws." Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper #12 (November 27, 1787)
In the above quote, author Alexander Hamilton first described a fleet of federal vessels that he believed the new nation would need to enforce tariff laws and interdict smuggling. Considered the father of the United States Coast Guard, Hamilton played an integral role in the formation and development of the government of the United States.
Born in Charlestown on the West Indian island of Nevis on January 11, 1757, Hamilton immigrated to New York in 1772. Although not yet 20 years of age, by 1774 he authored many widely read political publications.
Not long after the start of the American Revolution, Hamilton received the captaincy of an artillery unit and fought in the principal campaigns of 1776. In 1777, he advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel, joined the staff of General George Washington as secretary and aide-de-camp, and soon became Washington’s close confidant. Hamilton ended the war as a lieutenant colonel commanding an infantry regiment, which he led with great success during the siege of British forces at Yorktown.
When the new government got under way in 1789, Hamilton was appointed the first Secretary of the Treasury. He began at once to place the nation’s disorganized finances on a sound footing.
In a series of reports, he presented a program not only to stabilize national finances but also to set the country on a course of industrial development. He proposed establishing a national bank, funding of the national debt, assumption of the states’ war debts, and the encouragement of manufacturing.
Hamilton was the driving force behind legislation creating a revenue marine service, the maritime law enforcement predecessor of the Coast Guard. Already in 1787, he had articulated the need for the revenue marine in the Federalist Papers. As the fledgling nation sought to combat smuggling, Hamilton advised Congress to build a fleet of 10 cutters to help direct ships to specific ports of entry along the East Coast.
Secretary Hamilton submitted a bill to Congress that established a revenue marine fleet of 10 vessels serving ports in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states.
On August 4, 1790, President George Washington signed legislation establishing a maritime force simply called “the cutters” or “the system of cutters.” Thus was born the United States Revenue Cutter Service, known today as the U.S. Coast Guard. Congress empowered these cutters to enforce national laws, in particular, those dealing with tariffs. Since the Continental Navy had disbanded following the conclusion of the American Revolution, this revenue marine was the nation’s only sea service in the early years of the new republic.
It was during these early years, that the cutter fleet adopted many missions performed by the Coast Guard today. The cutters defended American shipping against piracy and enforced quarantine restrictions. In addition to their law enforcement role, the cutters rendered aid and assistance to protect of lives and property at sea, a humanitarian life-saving role that defines the Coast Guard to this day.
The cutters carried supplies to remotely located lighthouses and marked hazards to navigation as described in a 1793 Baltimore newspaper: “We, the Officers of the United States Cutter Active . . . have fixed a long spar on the most dangerous spot, with a red flag at the top, on which is the word ‘Rocks,’ in large white letters.”
The cutters proved effective in sounding and surveying the shores of the new republic, so Secretary Hamilton tasked them with charting navigable waterways in their patrol areas, writing “the cutters may be rendered an instrument of useful information, concerning the coast, inlets, bays and rivers of the United States, and it will be particularly acceptable if the officers improve the opportunities they have in making such observations . . . as may be useful in the interests of navigation . . . .” And, as the new republic engaged in military conflicts, the revenue cutters also adopted defense missions.