U.S. Revenue Cutter Service/U.S. Coast Guard Celebrate 225th Anniversary

Copy of letter from Alexander Hamilton authorizing the construction of five revenue cutters. National Archives, Record Group 26 Entry 143
Copy of letter from Alexander Hamilton to Philadelphia Customs Collector regarding construction of early revenue cutters. National Archives, Record Group 26 Entry 143A (Click on image to view larger version)

As most of you know the U.S. Coast Guard is an amalgamation of five agencies–the Revenue Cutter Service, the Life-Saving Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Steamboat Inspection Service, and the Bureau of Navigation. Established as the Revenue-Marine Service in the Department of the Treasury under Secretary Alexander Hamilton on August 4, 1790, the Revenue Cutter Service collected taxes and tariffs, enforced maritime laws, and suppressed piracy. The Revenue Cutter Service also frequently worked with the early Lighthouse Establishment. Before acquiring vessels to tend lighthouses and other aids to navigation (primarily buoys) the Lighthouse Establishment often relied on revenue cutters to assist them in this work. As the number of aids to navigation increased during the first half of the 19th century, it became apparent that the lighthouse service could no longer rely on revenue cutters to willingly perform tasks associated with tending buoys. In addition to contracting pilots and other mariners to take charge of these responsibilities, Pleasonton acquired two sailing vessels to help with this work thus confining the duties of cutter officers “to an occasional examination of the Light Houses.” (National Archives RG 26 Entry 17K, 1843)

Completed in 1854 Seahorse Key Lighthouse was designed and constructed under the district lighthouse engineer Lt. George Meade of the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers. (National Archives photo)
Completed in 1854 Seahorse Key Lighthouse was designed and constructed under the district lighthouse engineer Lt. George Meade of the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers. (National Archives photo)

Stephen Pleasonton, administrator of lighthouses from 1820 to 1852, depended on revenue cutter captains for reports on conditions at the stations and the effectiveness of their lights in aiding navigation since local lighthouse superintendents had little opportunity to view the lights they oversaw. In 1851 Captain RIchard Evans of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Campbell was called upon to recommend a site for a potential lighthouse along the gulf coast of Florida.

Seashore Key, the south one of a group called Cedar Keys, appears to have been formed by nature as a site for a Light House, having a high bluff on its southern extremity about 30 feet above the level of the sea, from which a shoal extends southwest fifteen miles and deep sandings close to it, thereby rendering approach in the night dangerous. I understand that the Cedar Keys have considerable commerce, being the depot for cotton brought down the Suwanee River amtg. to over 3000 bales per ann., and on the increase. I would therefore recommend a Light House on said Key, and would add in my opinion that the Lantern should be 100 ft. above the level of the sea. (National Archives RG 26 Entry 35)

1922 radio address lores
Edward Clifford (seated) gives radio address to commemorate the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service’s birthday on August 4, 1922.

On a more personal note, my grandfather, Edward Clifford, oversaw Coast Guard activities as a Treasury Department official almost a century ago. (This was before the Coast Guard oversaw lighthouses.) I occasionally come across his correspondence while working on projects in the National Archives. Recently I came across a script of a radio address he made on August 4, 1922, commemorating this anniversary. I had a family photo of him giving the address so was delighted to find a copy of his remarks.

On August 4, 1790, George Washington, President of the United States, approved an Act which included, among other provisions, authorization for the construction of not exceeding ten revenue cutters and specified how the cutters should be officered and manned and what should be the compensation of their officers, mariners, and boys. This was an Act of the second session of the First Congress and it is of interest to note that this entire session was held in the city of New York.

After the freedom of the American colonies had been won through the War of the Revolution the Continental Navy was disbanded. There was then no sea force available for the protection of the coasts and the maritime interests of the newly constituted United States until the organization of the Revenue-Cutter Service, effected under this Act of August 4, 1790. The cutters formed the only armed force afloat belonging to the young Republic until a Navy was authorized a few years later. The officers of the first cutters were appointed largely from the officers who had served in the old Continental Navy. It is interesting to know that the first commission granted by President Washington to any officer afloat was issued to Captain Hopley Yeaton of New Hampshire in the Revenue-Cutter Service.

August 4, 1790, was, therefore, the birthday of the Revenue-Cutter Service which was merged, in 1915, with the Life-Saving Service to form the United States Coast Guard. So, today, August 4, 1922, we are observing the 132rd birthday anniversary of the Coast Guard.

It is a source of gratification to me that there has been issued a General Order directing that August 4th shall be observed each year as a holiday in the Coast Guard. It is a wise thing for us all to pause occasionally and reflect and take an account of stock as it were; to recall the past, to contemplate the present, and to anticipate the future with hope, confidence and zeal; and a birthday seems a most appropriate time in which to do this.

The dominant thought in your minds today should be an intense pride in the long and honorable record of the Service. The Coast Guard is no mushroom growth. Founded at the very outset of our national history, it has served the country faithfully and well for 132 years, in peace and in war. The Service has played a distinguished part in every war in which this country has been engaged, with the exception only of the War with Tripoli; and, with a notable military history, it has also established a record that is unequaled for humanitarian accomplishment in affording succor to those in distress at sea. It has behind it a long and honorable past before many of the public eye were even dreamed of. The Service was an arm of the Government when the young Republic, just setting out on its career of destiny, had yet to convince the World of its permanence; it played its part through all the vicissitudes of our national growth until today when it is a valuable and highly respected instrumentality of the greatest nation that the world has ever seen.

I will not attempt to recount now anything of the history of the Coast Guard. Officers of the Coast Guard should know the history and traditions of the Service and should see that the men under their command are conversant with them. It seems to me that it must be a source of great pride and satisfaction to any officer or man to consider that he belongs to a military organization with such an exceptionally long and honorable record of accomplishment, with such traditions and with such high standards of duty. There is not, to my knowledge, any other organization under our Government which may so properly and accurately be called “The Peace and War Service.” It is also the “Silent Service” whose record and work are not known as widely throughout the land as they should be.

There is just one danger to an organization that lies in the possession of a long and distinguished history and that is the temptation for the personnel of today to rest content with what has been accomplished, to view with complacency the standing of, and respect for, the Service that their predecessors have won, and to feel that there is no great necessity to endeavor to add thereto. I am pleased to say that I have seen no tendency of this sort in the Coast Guard and I trust that such will never exist. We must not rely solely on our past record but must go forward. Today we may contemplate with pride and extreme satisfaction the proud record of the past. Tomorrow we must set our faces resolutely to the front with an earnest determination that the Coast Guard shall attain even higher standards of accomplishment and be even more efficient in wider fields of usefulness to the nation. (Source: National Archives RG 26 Entry 97A-1)

The U.S. Coast Guard was a very young agency when these remarks were written; this year they celebrate 100 years as a service, or should it be 225? Candace Clifford, May 7, 2015


  1. What a fun connection to your grandfather, Candy … perhaps a “genetic predisposition” for the lure of lighthouse records ?!

  2. Lanette Spranzo Macaruso says:

    Thanks so much for this informative and inspiring post about the formation of the U.S. Coast Guard service.!

  3. Wayne Wheeler says:

    WOW Candy, So, in a way, you’re a Service Brat! what  nice thing to stumble across in the Archives. Wayne W.

  4. Cheryl Shelton-Roberts says:

    Very interesting. I can only imagine your feeling of pride in finding comments by your grandfather–and lighthouse related. Amazing. Great information also–I didn’t know about the involvement of the Steamboat Inspection Service and the Bureau of Navigation. I look forward to looking into this to broaden my knowledge on the USCG.

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