On 4 August 1790, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation establishing a maritime force simply referred to as “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. Because the federal government did not establish the U.S. Navy until 1798, this small fleet was the only naval force available to protect the maritime interests of the new republic from 1790 to 1798. And with its 225 years of history, authorities consider the Coast Guard the nation’s oldest continuously active sea service.
While customs collectors had already used watercraft to facilitate their work in port, one man saw the need for a federally funded revenue-cutter fleet to enforce tariffs and interdict smuggling. He was 32-year-old Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Born in the British West Indies, Hamilton worked in a St. Croix–based accounting firm in his teens and learned a great deal about maritime trade. He advocated the establishment of a U.S. sea service years before he took office in 1789. For example, in the November 1787 publication of Federalist Number 12, he wrote, “A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws.” In October 1789, Secretary Hamilton sent a circular to customs collectors making known his interest in employing federal vessels to guard against smuggling. Six months later he submitted a bill to Congress calling for the creation of a revenue marine service. It was to include an initial installment of ten vessels to provide for the Massachusetts and New Hampshire coasts, Long Island Sound, New York Harbor, Delaware Bay; two cutters for the Chesapeake Bay; and one each for North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
After Congress passed his legislation, Hamilton sent President George Washington a list of potential cutter “masters,” the 18th-century term for cutter captains. These candidates included Revolutionary War naval veterans such as American privateer John Foster Williams. Hamilton required his senior officers to educate themselves in the laws governing maritime trade and tasked them to acquaint themselves “with all the revenue laws, which concern foreign commerce, or the coasting trade—a knowledge of the whole spirit and tendency of which cannot but be a useful guide to you in your particular sphere.” The service’s first junior officers (first, second, and third mates) received their commissions a few months after the masters. In a lengthy letter to customs collectors, Hamilton specified proper etiquette for all officers: “They will, therefore, refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has a semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult.”
With his background in maritime trade, Hamilton took a special interest in manning and fitting out his fleet. The officers took responsibility for enlisting the crews necessary to man the cutters. The crew for these small vessels 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 ensure the integrity of her cargo. To supplement their base salary and increase their zeal for the work, officers and crew received a portion of the proceeds derived from fines, penalties, and forfeitures collected from seizures of illegal cargo and smuggled goods.
The ten masters appointed from the president’s list oversaw construction of their respective cutters. These were not harbor boats, for Hamilton intended them to be very seaworthy and swift enough to overtake merchant vessels. They received a schooner rig carrying topsails on each of their masts and a light armament of four swivel guns, as well as muskets and small arms. Since these cutters were the first vessels built with federal funding, they proved to be an experiment lacking uniformity in design and construction. The ten cutters varied between 38 and 70 tons displacement, and the service rerigged some of the smaller cutters as sloops. Boston customs collector (and former Revolutionary War general) Benjamin Lincoln described the largest of these cutters, the Massachusetts, as follows:
She has one deck, two masts, her length is fifty feet above her upper deck. Her depth is seven feet eight inches, breadth seventeen feet eight inches. She measures seventy and forty-three ninety-fifths tons. She is a square stern schooner, has quarter badges, and an Indian’s head for a figure head. She has a long quarterdeck and a deep waist.
With an eye to U.S. manufacturing, Hamilton required that all cutter material be produced domestically. He ordered a specific number of weapons, tools, and appurtenances issued to cutters and even specified the kind and amount of sailcloth for each cutter. Cutters also received an annual allotment of rations of the same kind and quantity as those issued to military units of similar size, such as small army outposts.
The primary purpose of the cutters was to ensure the safety of commerce, enforce tariff laws, and deter smuggling. Their original mission included boarding commercial vessels and checking their papers; ensuring that all cargoes were properly documented; sealing the holds of incoming vessels; and seizing vessels violating federal laws. While customs collectors used small boats to check vessels once they anchored, the cutters patrolled the coast beyond harbor areas. That required them to sail out of port and intercept vessels before they came too close to shore, where they could land smuggled goods. At that time, the busiest smuggling spots were located along the Canadian border in the North and the border with Spanish Florida in the South, where northern cutters often cruised during the winter months.
The 1790s saw the cutters adopt more missions, including serving as aids to navigation. Founded in 1789, the U.S. Lighthouse Service had no tenders until the 1840s, so the cutters supported aids to navigation and carried supplies to remotely located lighthouses. And before lightships came into use in the 1820s, the cutters serviced “beacon boats.” Anchored near busy ports, these small vessels were equipped with a lighting apparatus that marked shallow water day and night. The cutters also piloted commercial vessels through especially treacherous harbor waters and marked hazards to navigation, as described in a 1793 newspaper notice for Baltimore Harbor: “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 served as research vessels for federal scientific efforts. These included one of the first known experiments in desalinization of salt water, performed by Master John Foster Williams on board the Massachusetts in 1792. That same year, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson suggested experiments with palmetto wood as hull sheathing on revenue cutters to test the wood’s anti-fouling qualities and its resistance to shipworms.
But the cutters proved most effective in sounding and surveying the shores of the new republic. Secretary Hamilton tasked cutter masters with charting navigable areas in their region: “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.” Cutters also supported the first federal coast survey. This initiative took place a year before the 1807 founding of the U.S. Coast Survey and produced charts for treacherous coastlines such as those in North Carolina and Louisiana. Unfortunately, the survey also resulted in the loss of two cutters in September 1806, when a deadly hurricane struck coastal North Carolina near the end of the surveying process.
In early America, roads were scarce or often impassable, so maritime transportation cut days or even weeks off travel times. Therefore, revenue cutters adopted the mission of carrying important federal communiqués, correspondence, and papers; government cargo; and diplomats and federal officials. Such was the case on 2 July 1807, when, in the midst of recurrent British bullying of American ships, the Thomas Jefferson carried Vice President George Clinton and his daughter off the Virginia Capes while Royal Navy vessels unsuccessfully attempted to bring to and board the revenue cutter. At a time when the latest news and information traveled by water, cutter masters gathered maritime and commercial intelligence and shared it with authorities and the press. Revenue cutters also disseminated official announcements, proclamations, and declarations, as in the War of 1812, when cutters transmitted the war declaration to remote coastal communities, deployed naval vessels, and small military installations.
The revenue cutters adopted more missions while cutter masters performed others out of a sense of duty. The cutters defended American shipping against piracy, and in 1793 they helped Southern port cities prepare for a threatened slave rebellion. Cutters enforced quarantine restrictions established by federal, state, and local governments. The cutters took on additional law-enforcement duties as Congress passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794 and the 1807 Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves. A long-standing tradition of the sea compelled cutter masters to rescue mariners in distress even before Congress formally assigned the service this mission in the 1830s. And as the new republic engaged in military conflicts, revenue cutters became survey vessels to identify strategic locations for coastal fortifications.
In the 1798–1801 Quasi-War with France, French privateers preyed on American shipping on the high seas. This undeclared war proved the first true test of the revenue-cutter fleet in a combat role, a mission the service has since supported in every major U.S. conflict. During the war, eight cutters engaged the enemy, captured dozens of prizes, and escorted hundreds of unarmed American merchantmen. After the war, the Jefferson and Madison administrations tried to maintain American neutrality on the high seas using economic pressure through the Embargo Acts (1807–8), Enforcement Act (1809), and Non-Intercourse Act (1809). The revenue cutters had to enforce these unpopular laws, which reduced domestic output, idled many merchant ships, and put thousands of Americans out of work.
During the War of 1812, revenue cutters adopted more combat missions, including protection of American coastal shipping and capture of enemy merchantmen. Each revenue cutter took responsibility for the security of her home port and surrounding waters against enemy privateers, which waited offshore for unarmed American merchantmen. The swift cutters gathered intelligence on enemy naval movements, the location of privateers, and news regarding the U.S. fleet. Cutter masters shared this information with customs collectors, government officials, and military leaders. The cutters also sailed with American naval squadrons and delivered dispatches and naval personnel to units of the U.S. Navy.
By the end of the War of 1812, the cutter fleet had existed for more than 20 years. During that time, the Revenue Cutter Service established itself as an important sea service in peacetime and in war. And it was during these early years that the service adopted many core missions still performed by the modern service. These include law enforcement, maritime interdiction, aids to navigation, search-and-rescue, port security, and naval and combat missions. Over its 225-year history, the service has taken on even more maritime missions, making the U.S. Coast Guard the longest continuously active sea service—emphasis on the “active.”