Saturday, August 6, 2011

The First Revenue Cutters

It was 1790, the new United States had a problem, and it was Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's job to fix it. Under the country's new Constitution, the United States was expected to raise much of its revenue through tariffs, fees paid on exported or imported goods. Smugglers had little problem avoiding these tariffs, however: a ship carrying goods subject to tariff could just load all or part of its cargo into smaller vessels, called coasters, which then landed the goods, easily avoiding the small, harbor-bound revenue cutters that existed at that time.

“A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws," Hamilton wrote in 1790. Congress agreed and authorized the building of ten cutters on August 4, 1790. The Revenue-Marine, forerunner of today's US Coast Guard, was born.

The treasury department had bought and operated other vessels previously, but the new cutters were specially built and crewed to operate in rough conditions offshore, and to be be fast enough to overtake most merchant ships of the time. The new cutters were small. Most displaced less than 50 tons, and were about 50 feet long and 25 wide. The relatively shallow draft, a little more than six feet, made the old pirate and smuggler's trick of escape by sailing over shoal water less effective.

Little is known about the early exploits of the cutters, as most of their records were lost when the British attacked Washington in the War of 1812. Coast Guard tradition has it that Massachusetts (pictured above) was the first cutter to serve as a commissioned United States vessels; other records indicate that Vigilant, launched in March 1791, was the first. Whatever the case, a total of ten cutters were built that first year. Their mission: board vessels to verify that their papers were in order, their cargo properly documented, and their fees and tariffs properly paid. The cutters seized vessels in violation of the law.

As the only armed maritime service of the United States -- the Navy would not be created until 1798 -- the cutters also enforced quarantines, and US neutrality and embargo acts. The cutters also conducted charting surveys, supplied lighthouses, and even carried passengers on (usually) official business.

The first ten cutters served for a fairly short time -- the Massachusetts was sold only 15 months after she was launched. The cutter Argus sailed the longest, until it was sold in 1804 (the average US Coast Guard cutter serving today was commissioned 20 to 40 years ago).

More on the first ten cutters can be found on the Coast Guard's web site here.

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