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U.S. Coast Guard, created to collect some taxes for a young America, turns 229

Today is the birthday of one of America's earliest tax collectors, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

That's right. The force that we know as the coastal defense and maritime law enforcement branch of the United States Armed Forces had its beginnings as Revenue Marine.

It was created by Alexander Hamilton on this day 229 years ago. Its job was to collect taxes at U.S. seaports.

Lin-Manuel Miranda did drop a few tax references into his smash Broadway musical, but unfortunately for us tax and seafaring geeks, he didn't elaborate on our first Treasury Secretary's creation of the Coast Guard.

While it's in no way comparable to a "Hamilton" stage mention, I am selecting the Coast Guard's 229 birthday as this week's By the Numbers honoree.

Brief Coast Guard history: Below, from the United States Coast Guard Historian's Office, is a quick overview of this armed force's history.

On Aug. 4, 1790, Congress authorized Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's proposal to build ten cutters to protect the new nation's revenue. Alternately known as the System of Cutters, Revenue Service, and Revenue-Marine, this service would officially be named the Revenue Cutter Service in 1863.

The cutters were placed under the control of the Treasury Department. This date marks the officially recognized birthday of the Coast Guard.

On Feb. 26, 1793, Hamilton submitted to the Senate the first official list of cutters with stations, officers' names, rank, and dates of commission.

Revenue cutters also were charged with suppressing piracy. In 1793, the service faced its first anti-piracy action when the cutter Diligence ran a pirate vessel ashore in the Chesapeake Bay.

On June 5, 1794, the third Congress authorized an additional ten revenue cutters and gave the Treasury Department responsibility for lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and piers.

Captain Alexander V. Fraser, Revenue Cutter Service, was appointed Chief of newly created Revenue Marine Bureau of Treasury in 1843 and became the Service's first Commandant.

Congress in 1863 passed an act allowing the President to appoint commissioned officers of the Revenue Cutter Service with advice and consent of the Senate. This act contained the first statutory use of term Revenue Cutter Service. Previous laws referred only to revenue cutters.

The Revenue Cutter School of Instruction, predecessor of the Coast Guard Academy, was founded in 1876.

On March 3, 1905, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to acquire a suitable site in the state of Maryland upon which to establish a depot for the Revenue Cutter Service. This site eventually became the Coast Guard Yard.

President William Howard Taft on April 4, 1912, recommended abolishing Revenue Cutter Service to cut expenses. His actions led to the eventual creation of the Coast Guard three years later by merging the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service on Jan. 28, 1915.

Hamilton acknowledgments: As you would expect, the first U.S. Treasury Secretary's role in the creation of the Coast Guard is acknowledged in a variety of ways.

USCGC_Hamilton_WHEC-715_US-Coast-Guard-photo
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, the lead ship of the branch's Hamilton class vessel.
(Photo by USCG via Wikipedia Commons)

Hamilton class Coast Guard cutters, also known as the Secretary class, were so-called because most of the vessels in this line were named for former Secretaries of the Treasury.

The Hamilton-class cutter was the largest class of vessel, aside from the Polar-class icebreakers, in the Coast Guard until replaced by the Legend-class cutter.

That transition happened on Nov. 11, 2006, when the Bertholf, the first Legend-class National Security Cutter, was christened. The new, larger cutter was built to replace the Hamilton-class vessel.

Individual A.Ham ships: Several Revenue Cutter Service/U.S. Coast Guard vessels also were specifically named after their original champion, the $10 founding father.

Some notable incidents involving ships bearing the Hamilton moniker include:

  • On Jan. 30 1942, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Alexander Hamilton was struck by a torpedo while on convoy duty and sank off the coast of Iceland. She was the first cutter sunk by enemy action during World War II. Twenty-six of her crew perished in the attack.
  • On Aug. 1, 1999, USCGC Hamilton attempted to seize the Russian fishing trawler Gissar in the Bering Sea for fishing in U.S. waters. The Gissar tried to return to Russian waters, whereupon a boarding team from the Hamilton boarded the trawler. Soon thereafter, up to 19 other Russian trawlers surrounded the two vessels, preventing the Hamilton from taking the Gissar to a U.S. port. The Hamilton's boarding crew was removed from the Gissar and the ship was turned over to the Russian Border Guard.
  • On Dec. 6, 1999, a multi-day encounter between the cutter Munro and the Wing Fung Lung, began when the Coast Guard vessel intercepted the Chinese ship, which was loaded with more than 250 Chinese migrants and headed for the Guatemala/El Salvador border. After being denied permission to board, the Munro tracked the vessel for three days until the watch spotted flares over the ship. When the Munro's small boat approached, panicked migrants began jumping into the water, but were pulled to safety and returned to the Wing Fun Lung. Facing no food or water for more than a day on the Chinese ship, all aboard were at the point of total rebellion until boarding teams from the USCGC Hamilton arrived and helped to control the situation. The vessel was finally taken into Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, where the migrants were taken into custody and the Chinese ship's master was arrested.

Still a tax connection: Finally, I am thrilled to see that the current Coast Guard still has a link to its origin.

The Coast Guard's website keeps a close eye on tax matters that could affect the service and its members, regularly posting tax items.

As for those personnel, the Internal Revenue Code provides for some special tax treatment of members of the U.S. military branches.

For federal tax purposes, the U.S. Armed Forces is defined as officers and enlisted personnel in all regular and reserve units controlled by the Secretaries of Defense, the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Coast Guard also is included.

You can read more about military tax breaks in my previous post on tax breaks for military personnel, as well as at the IRS' special website page with tax information for members of the armed forces.

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