Immediately after the American Revolutionary War the new United States Navy was disbanded.
Our new nation was struggling to stay afloat financially.
President George Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury on September 11, 1789.
Much of the structure of the government of the United States was worked out in those early years, beginning with the structure and function of the cabinet itself.
Forrest McDonald argued that Hamilton saw his office, like that of the British First Lord of the Treasury, as the equivalent of a Prime Minister; Hamilton went on to oversee his colleagues under the elective reign of George Washington.
Washington actually did request Hamilton’s advice and assistance on matters outside the purview of the Treasury Department.
After the Revolutionary War, national income was desperately needed, and the government determined that a great deal of this income would come from import tariffs.
Smuggling from off American coasts had been a problem since before the Revolutionary War, and the Revolution had made the activity even more commonplace. Along with smuggling, lack of shipping control, pirating, and a revenue unbalance were also major problems.
In response, Alexander Hamilton proposed to Congress to enact a naval police force of revenue cutters in order to patrol the waters and assist the custom collectors with confiscating contraband.
This idea was also proposed to assist in tariff controlling, boosting the American economy, and to promote the merchant marine.
Then on August 4, 1790, the United States Congress, urged on by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, created the Revenue-Marine (the forerunner of our modern United States Coast Guard).
The Revenue-Marine would be responsible for enforcing the tariff laws as well as other maritime laws and operated under the authority of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Concerning some of the details of this “System of Cutters”, Hamilton wanted the first ten cutters in different areas in the United States, from New England to Georgia.
Thus, the first ten cutters were initially ordered to be distributed along the seaboard as follows: two for the coast of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, one for Long Island Sound, one for New York, one for the Bay of Delaware, two for the Chesapeake and neighboring waters, and one each for North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Hamilton also wanted these cutters to be armed with ten muskets and bayonets, twenty pistols, two chisels, one broad-ax and two lanterns, and he wanted the fabric of the sails to be domestically manufactured.
Hamilton was also concerned for the sailors food supply and etiquette when boarding ships, and made provisions for each.
These first cutters were to measure from thirty-six to forty feet in length of keel, manned by two officers and six marines.
Although little documentation exists regarding any of the first ten cutters’ activities–most of the correspondence and logbooks from the era were destroyed by fire when the British Army burned Washington, DC (including the Treasury Department building in which these records were held) during the War of 1812 and another fire at the Treasury Department in 1833–these government vessels undoubtedly carried out a myriad of tasks. Many of these duties were spelled out in letters from the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to the various collectors of customs, who were in direct charge of the cutters and their crews. The duties specifically assigned to the cutters and their crews as legislated by Congress and expounded by Hamilton included:
- boarding incoming and outgoing vessels and checking their papers (ownership, registration, admeasurement, manifests, etc.)
- ensuring that all cargoes were properly documented
- sealing the cargo holds of incoming vessels
- seizing those vessels in violation of the law
- They were also tasked with a number of other duties that were not related to protecting the revenue. These included:
- enforcing quarantine restrictions established by the federal, state or local governments
- charting the local coastline
- enforcing the neutrality and embargo acts
- carrying official (and unofficial) passengers
- carrying supplies to lighthouse stations
- other duties as assigned by the collector
Their primary purpose, however, was to deter smuggling and insure the collection of tariffs. That meant sailing out of the port to which they were assigned and intercepting vessels before they came too close to shore. It was here, well out of the harbor but within sight of the coast, that smugglers unloaded part or all of their cargoes into smaller “coaster” vessels or directly onshore to avoid customs duties. The collectors usually had smaller boats that could check vessels as they sailed into port. Therefore these ten cutters were not harbor vessels; they were designed to sail out to sea, survive in heavy weather, and sail swiftly so that they might overtake most merchant vessels.
Ultimately, then, they were the nation’s first line of defense against attempts to circumvent the new nation’s duties, the country’s major source of income during this period. They were a critical part of the attempt by the newly formed United States to establish a sound economic footing, the key to the successful establishment and continuance of any government.
Patrick Dennis was appointed the master of the Vigilant October 6, 1790 and oversaw her construction.
Vigilant (launched 1791) was the first of the original ten cutters built and was probably the first cutter launched.
Little documentation survives regarding her service life but she apparently carried out her assigned duties as described along the Hudson River as far north as Albany, in New York Harbor itself, as well as along the coastline of New York and New Jersey, and “through Hell Gate to Long Island Sound except Sagg harbor.”
There is some remaining information regarding her role in a celebrated naval engagement between the French frigate Ambuscade and the Royal Navy frigate Boston during the long war between England and France. On a summer day in 1793 Vigilant was patrolling off Sandy Hook when a frigate, flying French colors, ordered the cutter to hove to. Two American prisoners on board the frigate described what happened:
The New York revenue cutter, Captain Dennis, was brought to by the Boston. The frigate under French colours, and the crew having the national cockade in their hats. Capt. Cortnay, in French, asked Capt. Dennis, who was not to be deceived, answered that he conceived the Boston looked more like an English armed vessel than any on the coast. Upon this Capt. Courtnay enquired what French vessels were in New York. Captain Dennis answered that the principal was the Ambuscade frigate: well, says Courtnay tell Capt. Bompard that I had come all the way from Halifax on purpose to take the Ambuscade and I shall be very happy to see her out of the way. Shall I tell him that? yet asked Dennis; Yes, to be sure answered the first lieutenant. Capt. Dennis delivered the message to Bompard at the Coffee House.
Bompard accepted the British offer and sailed off to battle Boston. After breaking off the engagement in which Boston was damaged more severely and her captain killed, Ambuscade sailed back to New York Harbor.
Vigilant was sold at auction November 14, 1798 for £348 after it was determined that she was too small and too lightly armed to carry out her assigned duties in the busiest port of the new nation. There is no further documentation regarding her ultimate fate.
Then in 1832, Secretary of the Treasury Louis McLane issued written orders for revenue cutters to conduct winter cruises to assist mariners in need, and Congress made the practice an official part of regulations in 1837. This was the beginning of the lifesaving mission for which the later U.S. Coast Guard would be best known worldwide.
The Revenue-Marine was renamed the Revenue Cutter Service by act of July 31, 1894 (28 Stat. 171).
In 1915, the service merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Lighthouse Service, another federal agency, would also be merged with the U.S. Coast Guard, in 1939.
Semper Paratus (Latin: “Always Ready”) is perhaps most well known today as the motto of the United States Coast Guard, and their marching song Semper Paratus.
The Boy Scout Motto: BE PREPARED is thought to have been based on this Coast Guard motto which means you should always be in a state of readiness with your mind and body to do your DUTY.
Now WE know em