The Long Blue Line: Alexander Hamilton – first member of the long blue line

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

Photograph of newly commissioned National Security Cutter Alexander Hamilton (WMSL-753), the sixth Coast Guard cutter to bear the name. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Photograph of newly commissioned National Security Cutter Alexander Hamilton (WMSL-753), the sixth Coast Guard cutter to bear the name. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws.

Federalist Paper #12 (27 November 1787)

In the above quote, author Alexander Hamilton described a fleet of Federal vessels that he believed the newly created United States required to enforce tariff laws and interdict smuggling.

Considered the father of the United States Coast Guard, Hamilton played an integral role in the formation and development of the government of the United States. When the new government got under way in 1789, Hamilton was appointed the first Secretary of the Treasury. He began at once to place the nation’s disorganized finances on a sound footing. In a series of reports, he presented a program not only to stabilize national finances but also to shape the future of the country as a developing industrial nation. He proposed establishment of a national bank, funding of the national debt, assumption of state war debts, and the encouragement of manufacturing. In addition, he was the driving force behind Congress’ creation of a revenue marine service, the precursor to the modern-day Coast Guard.

Born in Charlestown on the West Indian island of Nevis on January 11, 1757, Hamilton immigrated to New York in 1772. Although not yet 20 years of age, by 1774 he authored many widely read political publications. Not long after the start of the American Revolution, Hamilton received the captaincy of an artillery unit and fought in the principal campaigns of 1776. In 1777, he advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel, joined the staff of General Washington as secretary and aide-de-camp, and soon became Washington’s close confidant. Hamilton ended the war as a lieutenant colonel commanding an infantry regiment, which he led with great success during the siege at Yorktown.

An oil portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792. National Gallery of Art.

An oil portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792. National Gallery of Art.

Already in 1787, Hamilton had articulated the need for the revenue marine in the Federalist Papers. As the fledgling nation sought to combat smugglers seeking to avoid payment of import tariffs, Hamilton advised Congress to build a fleet of ten cutters to help direct ships to specific ports of entry along the East Coast of the United States.

Hamilton’s small fleet proved the basis for establishment of a revenue marine, later known as the Revenue Cutter Service. Congress adopted Hamilton’s plan on August 4, 1790, which the Coast Guard celebrates as its birth date. Since the Continental Navy and marines disbanded following the conclusion of the American Revolution, this revenue marine was the nation’s only sea service in the early years of the new republic.

Hamilton assigned revenue cutters to the East Coast’s ten major seaports, allowing for import tariff collection, critically important to the economic viability of the nation. In addition to their law enforcement role, the fleet of cutters rendered aid and assistance as needed “for the protection of lives and property at sea,” a humanitarian life-saving role that defines the Coast Guard to this day.

Hamilton resigned from the cabinet in January 1795 and never returned to public office. His two last major political acts came in 1800 and 1804 and both targeted aspiring political leader Aaron Burr. When Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied in the 1800 presidential election, Hamilton used his influence in the House of Representatives to secure Jefferson’s presidency. In 1804, Hamilton also maneuvered to defeat Burr’s chances of becoming governor of New York. In response to Hamilton’s political moves against him, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel on the pretext that the latter had expressed a “despicable opinion” of him. The duel took place in New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day. Hamilton was laid to rest at Trinity Church in New York City.

Alexander Hamilton was the original member of the long blue line and he established a service that has stood the test of time for over 225 years. Today, Hamilton’s name graces the hull of the newest National Security Cutter, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, the sixth Coast Guard cutter to bear his name.

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