August 4th, 1790: Happy Birthday, U.S. Coast Guard!

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Semper Paratus “Always Ready” Motto of the U.S. Coast Guard

(WHTM) — In the early years of the United States, tariffs, aka custom duties, provided as much as ninety percent of Federal Revenue. And then as now, there were those who tried to duck out of paying taxes-in this case, smugglers.

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On August 4th, 1790, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to construct ten ships, “revenue cutters,” to enforce tariff laws and hunt down smugglers. This force would be known officially as the Revenue Marine or Revenue Cutter Service until 1915.

The Revenue Cutter Service’s initial duties included boarding incoming and outgoing vessels and checking their papers; making sure all cargoes were documented properly; sealing cargo holds on incoming vessels; and seizing ships that violated the law.

Along the way, they picked up some Additional Duties. They enforced quarantine restrictions established by the federal, state or local governments, charted local coastlines, and carried supplies to lighthouse stations.

For eight years the Revenue Marine was the country’s only armed maritime force. There was no navy. The Continental Navy effectively went out of existence in 1785, when the last ship was sold to help with the national debt, and the U.S. Navy wasn’t established or re-established, depending on your point of view, until 1798.

In 1914 The Revenue Marine took on an important new duty. Following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, a Convention for Safety at Sea met in London in 1914. There a treaty was signed creating the International Ice Patrol to patrol the North Atlantic. Tasked with doing the actual patrolling-the Revenue Cutter Service.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the government had three other water-related services operating independently of the Revenue Marine-U.S. Life Saving Service, the Lighthouse Service, and the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation.

In 1915, the Coast Guard became the Coast Guard, when Congress merged the Revenue Marine and Life Saving Services. The Lighthouse Service became part of the Coast Guard in 1939, and the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation was added in 1946.

The Coast Guard’s duties as a law enforcement agency make it unique among American military services. For one thing, it’s the only branch of the armed forces exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military for law enforcement. In times of peace, it’s administered by a civilian agency. (From 1967 until 2003 it was part of the Department of Transportation.) In 2003, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard became part of the Department of Homeland Security.

During times of war, the Coast Guard transfers its flag to the Department of Defense and becomes part of the Navy. (Interesting fact: the only surviving ship from the attack on Pearl Harbor is the Coast Guard Cutter Taney, now on display at Inner Harbor in Baltimore.)

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