On August 4, 1790, President George Washington put pen to paper and created the Revenue Cutter Service, to enforce federal tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling. That service of “a few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws” has grown into America’s maritime first responder. Known variously through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the Revenue Marine and the Revenue Cutter Service
The service received its present name in 1915 under an act of Congress that merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life-Saving Service, thereby providing the nation with a single maritime service dedicated to saving life at sea and enforcing the nation’s maritime laws. The Coast Guard began to maintain the country’s aids to maritime navigation, including operating the nation’s lighthouses, when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the transfer of the Lighthouse Service to the Coast Guard in 1939. In 1946 Congress permanently transferred the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard, thereby placing merchant marine licensing and merchant vessel safety under Coast Guard purview.
The Coast Guard is one of the oldest organizations of the federal government and until Congress established the Navy Department in 1798 we served as the nation’s only armed force afloat. The Coast Guard has protected the nation throughout our long history and served proudly in every one of the nation’s conflicts. The Coast Guard’s national defense responsibilities remain one of their most important functions even today. In times of peace they operate as part of the Department of Homeland Security, serving as the nation’s front-line agency for enforcing the nation’s laws at sea, protecting the marine environment and the nation’s vast coastline and ports, and saving life. In times of war, or at the direction of the President, they serve under the Navy Department.