August 4, 1790
Creation of U. S. Revenue Marine
In March 1976, Proceedings published a brief article by Truman R. Strobridge and Bernard C. Nalty about the discovery of correspondence between Alexander Hamilton, credited with the creation of the Revenue Marine, and Colonel Sharp Delaney, a Customs collector at the time. This correspondence, regarding the use of ships to enforce the new Customs laws of the Constitution, suggests that Hamilton may not have been solely responsible for the conception of the service that is today known as the U. S. Coast Guard. As Strobridge and Nalty write:
No one denies that today’s Coast Guard is descended from Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s U. S. Revenue Marine, but letters discovered in 1962 at the Philadelphia Customs House raise questions about other aspects of the story. Did the Revenue Marine originate at Philadelphia or at Newburyport, Massachusetts, where the first revenue cutter was built? Was its founder Alexander Hamilton or Colonel Sharp Delany, an Irish-born veteran of the Revolution who in 1789 became the first Collector of Customs at the Pennsylvania city?
About two months after Delany took office, but while he was absent because of illness, a circular letter arrived from Secretary Hamilton. The question of revenue cutters was already on the cabinet officer’s mind, for he asked “to have your ideas of the expediency of employing them in your quarter, and (if any appear to you necessary) of the number and kind you deem requisite, their armament and probable expense.” If any cutters “have been in use under State Regulations,” Hamilton continued, “I desire they may be continued and that I may be advised with accuracy of the nature of their establishment.”
When Delany returned to the Customs House, he got the impression that his assistant had answered Secretary Hamilton. As a result, no reply left Philadelphia until 31 October, when the colonel wrote:
”Sir—I should have laid my ideas respecting Boats before you—long since—had I not thought Mr. Meredith had done it, as he is well acquainted with the necessity of having such. I am confident in our Bay and River they are essentially necessary—and would in a great degree prevent smuggling. The great length of our River, the many creeks and inlets, and the great number of small craft are inducements to evil disposed people to attempt evading the laws—nay, from information, I am well convinced such doings have taken place already, especially in Coffee, which is an article easily run—I know of no other way to prevent and discourage such doings, unless by boats properly stationed—and strictly obliging all masters to produce manifests to the boarding officer according to Law—and even placing an inspector on board, as far down the River as possible. In consequence, I procured a barge with sails, etc., and kept her constantly plying between this port and Newcastle with directions to board every vessel and receive their manifests, and place an officer on board. I have kept it going night and day, and directed the officer to board the River Craft and inform them of his duty. The number of boats necessary in our Bay and River I think should be not less than three at least on first setting out. A decked boat to ply the Capes and in our Bay—a row boat to be stationed at Reedy Island to ply from Newcastle to Salem & Cohansey—and the shores on each side of the Delaware. Another row boat to ply between Philadelphia and Newcastle—to take such inspectors as may be off duty and put them on board such vessels as they may meet coming up. Please excuse the incoherence of my letters—as I am yet so unwell as to write them in my bed—I have scarce thought to read them over. ”
Delany showed the same tenacity in the matter of revenue cutters that he had shown in raising militia units during the Revolution. When Hamilton did not reply, he wrote another letter in February 1790, urging the Secretary of the Treasury to provide additional craft to supplement the work of his barge, which continued patrolling the Delaware River. He even suggested the purchase of a vessel he had recently seized for violating the revenue laws. He was confident that a court would soon condemn her and that she would “cost little, not half what one could otherwise be procured for.” Delany’s plan to use a smuggler’s ship to catch other smugglers had a certain poetic justice, but the Treasury Department failed to act.
Secretary Hamilton did not respond until 19 May 1790, some four weeks, after Congress had received a bill for the creation of a U. S. Revenue Marine with a fleet of “ten boats.” At this time, he told Delany that “the circumstances which led to the temporary arrangement in your district appear still to be of so useful weight, as to induce a continuance of the measure until the proposed establishment shall be completed.” In this roundabout fashion, Hamilton acknowledged that Delany’s makeshift cutter had been successful in collecting duties owed the federal government—in short, doing the work of a revenue marine.
The Delany-Hamilton letters, discovered by Fred C. Peters after he had become Collector of Customs at Philadelphia, inspired Thomas Hornsby, one of his customs collectors, to write a monograph which served as the basis for a number of newspaper and magazine articles. Peters and Hornsby maintained that this correspondence proved conclusively that Sharp Delany established the predecessor to the U. S. Coast Guard at Philadelphia in the autumn of 1789.
Their arguments failed to convince Rear Admiral Stephen H. Evans, USCG, Superintendent of the U. S. Coast Guard Academy and author of a history of his service. He wrote a rebuttal, which was circulated in limited mimeograph copies within the Coast Guard. Admiral Evans insisted that “Colonel Delany’s ‘barge with sail’ was simply an administrative tool, and that, although it was one forerunner of the system of cutters, it was not a formal member of a statutory cutter fleet in 1789.”
Obviously, Delany’s revenue cutter could not have been part of the statutory organization before Congress adopted the statute creating the Revenue Marine on 4 August 1790. The fact remains, however, that by Hamilton’s admission the barge put into service by Delany was doing as early as 1789 the work that the revenue cutters were assigned the following year.
If Colonel Sharp Delany was not the father of the U. S. Coast Guard, he was certainly its uncle.