On this day in history, President George Washington signed the Tariff Act authorizing the construction of 10 vessels, or “cutters” to enforce federal tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling. This service was originally proposed by Alexander Hamilton as part of The Federalist Papers. In Federalist No. 12, Hamilton wrote:
A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws.”
The service expanded in size as the nation grew, serving in almost every war since the Constitution became the law of the land in 1789. It gained other responsibilities over the years as well, including protection of the country’s strategic natural resources pursuant to the Timber Act of 1822, cruising coastlines for those in distress. In 1848, Congress passed an appropriation for $10,000 to allow for “the better preservation of life and property from shipwrecks.” With the purchase of Alaska in 1867, patrols were assigned to help curtail the illegal seal trade. After the Titanic sank in 1912, the service began conducting international ice patrols.
In 1915, an act of Congress merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the U. S. Life-Saving Service, creating the U.S. Coast Guard. Additional agencies were later merged into the Coast Guard, including those administering lighthouses, merchant marine licensing, and more.
In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the Coast Guard transferred from the Department of Treasury to the newly created Department of Transportation. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard was again transferred by President George W. Bush, this time to the newly established Department of Homeland Security.
As of 2012, the Coast Guard had over 43,000 active duty members, over 8,000 reservists, over 8,800 civilian employees, and over 30,000 volunteer Auxiliarists. Of the workforce, 85.7% are men.
Alexander Hamilton is honored by the service as “The Father of the Coast Guard.” To this date, five ships named after Alexander Hamilton have served in the US Coast Guard.