“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.
Modern painting of the Service’s first commissioned officer, Captain Hopley Yeaton, whose remains have been interred at the Coast Guard Academy. (Coast Guard Collection)
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.
Early Revenue Cutter Captain William Cooke seizes contraband gold from the French Privateer Francois Henri Hervieux near Brunswick, North Carolina in 1793. (Coast Guard Collection)
President Washington appointed 10 cutter masters who oversaw construction of these first ships built by the United States. The cutters received a schooner rig carrying topsails on each mast and an armament of four swivel guns, muskets and small arms. The cutters lacked the uniformity in design and construction of later federal vessels, varying between 38 and 70 tons displacement. The service even re-rigged some of the smaller schooners as sloops. With an eye to U.S. manufacturing, Hamilton required all revenue cutter materials be produced domestically. He issued orders requiring a specific number of weapons, tools and instruments be issued each cutter, even down to the kind and amount of sailcloth.
Hamilton also took a special interest in manning his fleet. The officers were responsible for enlisting each cutter’s crew, which consisted of a master; first, second and third mates; four enlisted men; and two boys. Hamilton thought it best to provide a large number of junior officers in case one or more had to ride an inbound merchant vessel to oversee the integrity of its cargo. To supplement their base salary and increase their zeal for the work, officers and crew received part of the proceeds derived from fines, penalties, and forfeitures collected from seizures of illegal cargo and smuggled goods.
Profile view of Revenue Cutter Massachusetts, considered by many to be the first cutter completed and ready for service. (Coast Guard Collection)
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.
Hamilton resigned from the cabinet in January 1795 and never returned to public office. His last major political acts came in 1800 and 1804 and both targeted aspiring politician Aaron Burr. When Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied in the 1800 presidential election, Hamilton used his influence in the House of Representatives to secure Jefferson’s presidency. In 1804, Hamilton also maneuvered to defeat Burr’s chances of becoming governor of New York. In large part due to Hamilton’s political moves against him, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. On Wednesday, July 11, 1804, Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day. Hamilton was laid to rest at Trinity Church in New York City.
In 1790, Alexander Hamilton established a service that has stood the test of time. He was the first member of an unbroken long blue line that has marched forward for 230 years.
William Thiesen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
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