The United States Coast Guard 1790 to the Present - A History
The United States Coast Guard traces its origins to 1790, but the official USCG name was designated in 1915.
The Coast Guard is the product of the assimilation of several government agencies over a long period of time.
When America was a British colony, the first lighthouse was built in Boston Harbor on Little Brewster Island in
1716. The lighthouse was an aid to navigation to guide ships along the rocky Atlantic coast. In August of 1789,
the first Congress federalized the lighthouse that had been built by the colonists, and funded the construction
and maintenance of buoys and lighthouses.These early lighthouses were sturdy stone structures with thick walls
whose lights under the care of keepers guided mariners into dangerous ports. Oil wick lamp lights were
amplified by large optical lenses, reflectors and prisms.
Where lighthouses could not be placed, government lightships were stationed at strategic locations in coastal
waters. The first lightship was located in Chesapeake Bay in 1820 under the supervision of the Lighthouse
Service. Storms sometimes blew lightships off location and other ships sometimes sunk them. On May 16,
1934, “the Olympic, sister ship of the ill fated Titanic, struck and sank the Nantucket Shoals Lightship (No.
117) in fog and drove the vessel to the bottom with the loss of seven (of eleven) crewmen.” Hundreds of these
floating lighthouses guided mariners until the 1980‟s when the vessels were superseded by sophisticated
(“A Historical Overview: Aids to Navigation; Lightships...,” CGHO, January 1999).
Upon winning independence from the United Kingdom in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the former
British subjects governed themselves by a states rights oriented union of former colonies stretching from the
southern boundary of British Canada to Spanish Florida. The first constitution of the United States was the
Articles of Confederation which was designed to maximize the autonomy of each state.
The Articles by definition failed to forge national unity. To remedy the situation, the Constitutional Convention,
with representation from each of the states, met in Philadelphia in 1787 and created the federal Constitution
which was ratified by the states in 1788 and went into effect in 1789.
Revolutionary War general and first U.S. president, George Washington, was determined to put the fledgling
nation on a strong political and financial footing. On August 4, 1790, President Washington signed an Act of
Congress “to regulate the collection of duties imposed by law on the tonnage of ships or vessels, and on goods,
wares and merchandise, imported into the United States.”
Ten boats “for securing the collection of revenue” were built, and officers and men were hired in this first U.S.
navy to operate the vessels in coastal waters and on the high seas. During the Revolutionary War, the
Continental Congress authorized a navy to battle the British fleet, but it was disbanded at the end of the war.
The first navy of the United States consisted of the ten “revenue cutters” built to enforce customs laws, save
lives at sea, and apprehend smugglers and pirates. The origins of the U.S. Coast Guard began with the Revenue
Cutter or Revenue Marine Service formally inaugurated by act of law in 1790.
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton recommended the creation of the Revenue Service, and sent a
detailed “Letter Of Instructions To The Commanding Officers of the Revenue Cutters” explaining their duties,
powers of enforcement, and the professional traits (“prudence, moderation, and good temper”) they should
exhibit. Hamilton manifested those leadership qualities as a brave Revolutionary War officer and in his service
as President Washington‟s treasury secretary, during which time he laid the financial and commercial
foundations of the new Republic. Hamilton enunciated many of the political philosophies that define the basic
principles of the federal republic.
Hamilton required “that a regular journal be kept in each cutter” describing “all occurrences relative to the
execution of the laws” and that “the coasts, inlets, bays and rivers of the United States” be studied and described
in such ways “as may be useful in the interests of navigation” (“Hamilton‟s Letter..,” Office of Coast Guard
The Revenue Cutter (or Revenue Marine) Service of 1790 set the stage for the dual role of the future United
States Coast Guard: military service with the added responsibility of serving the civil function of law
enforcement and the protection of life and property.