Aug 4

Founders of the U. S. Coast Guard

Thursday, August 4, 2011 1:00 AM


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.

  • Cheryl Lee

    As our family’s genealogist, I have uncovered a great deal about Dr./Col. Sharp Delany. In the Lib. of Congress is a commemorative Treasury Dept. sepia-colored brochure to celebrate the U. S. Customs Service. Repros of his painting done only weeks before his sudden death 13May1799 and some of his correspndence with Hamilton prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that, with his usual self-motiva- tion and his imaginative mind which he used in helping to create our incredible great nation of freedom, responsibility, and faith, he did all sorts of things for which he has received almost no credit, that he did indeed found not only the Coast Guard but also the Marine Corps as the Treasury Dept brochure says!! First of all, he started the customs warehousing system to store confiscated goods, then he started the auctions of these goods in order to help raise revenue for our very poor new nation. He revamped the entire light house system to better protect our increasing sea commerce, plus he bought a barge that could quietly sneak up on ships operated “by evil-intended men smuggling in…coffee!!!”
    It should also be remembered he wrote to his closest friend, Gen. Anthony Wayne, that he had been offered the position as commander of all of Pa’s huge militia of 440,000 men. He turned it down for reasons he did not disclose in his letter to his closest friend, Gen. Anthony Wayne, but he assured Wayne that when they met in person, Wayne would highly approve of his declination. Sharp had already given 5,000 pounds (like a million dollars today!) to supply the army, then he raised his own Second Pennsylvania Battalion (wonder who raised the First!?) to protect the Colonies largest city, Philadelphia! He was a member of the various Pa. committees which favored and began preparing to fight for American Independence. On top of all this, he was a member of the new innovative, all-powerful Pa. Legislature where he made numerous suggestions about laws, raisng revenues for the war that appeared to be and did come. He helping to hammer out budgets, and hundreds of other necessary plans. To do this was signing your own death warrant. The British would have loved to have caught them at one of their many meetings!!
    Even tho he had very valid reasons for turning down the top leadership position of the Pa. Militia, we find in Dr. Benjamin Rush’s autobiography that, as he was riding many miles outside of Philadelphia on the blackest of nights from a secret meeting with Gen. Cadwallader and other generals with a vital message for Gen. Washington, he nearly had a deadly encounter when an unseen gun was suddenly thrust into his breast by someone of incredibly fast movements, warning that he better identify himself immediately or be blown into the next world. Rush recognized the voice, and responded, “A friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, if that be my close friend, Dr. Sharp Delany!” Delany was all over the countryside, esp. dangerous activity after the British occupation of Philadelphia!
    Dr. Delany was not only a fine Dublin-trained lawyer but also a physician and pharmacist. He was close friends with Dr. Benjamin Franklin,as well as Dr. Samuel Johnson who once wrote, “Contrary to the law of physics that great bodies doth move slowly, my good friend Col. Delany was out of here in such a tangent that I had no opportunity to give him my letter for you!” Dr. Johnson also considered Sharp to be an expert on horse flesh.
    Another interesting note should be made. Our country had been attracting some of Europe’s most brilliant minds, freedom-loving souls, students of history (learn the lessons of history or be doomed to repeat them!), independent thinkers, highly educated, motivated men for over 175 years! Where else could you find so many men who would know just who Roman Emperor Cincinnatus was and regard their own beloved General as a modern-day Cincinnatus, founding the Order of the Cincinnati, a secret society to protect our large infant nation from internal and external undermining and overthrowing of it!!?
    It was a time of incredibly brilliant, aristocratically well-mannered and honorably brave men who were all very busy, like Thomas Jefferson and Franklin and Noah and Daniel Webster in developing a new, never seen before national identity that would raise a standard of excellence and responsible freedom for the peoples of the world to want to repair. While Franklin, Rush, the Websters tried to create a standardized way of spelling, puctuating, and expressing which the British to this day call “speaking American, NOT English!!”, I noticed as an English major and after careful reading of many pages of Dr. Delany’s Orders Books, that they unanamously chose to use Delany’s spellings, punctuations, etc. Delany’s use of commas, his spellings are exactly like we use today in correctly written documents.
    Lastly, it would be a huge mistake to think these erudite, well-educated gentlemen did not know who they were. THEY KNEW WHO THEY WERE! Additionally, they were very supportive of one another after having risked their lives for eight long years as a band of brothers selflessly risking all to secure the blessings of liberty. They humbled themselves before God and held thousands upon thousands of religious meetings and begged for God’s help, as they knew they could not attain victory without His miracles!
    His lovely daughter Margaret Sharp Delany in a large Philadelphia society wedding after the war married Judge James Moore’s son,Col. James Moore. Judge Moore of the Supreme Court of Pa., had been on the small secret committee which voted to make Delany’s relative, Gen. Anthony Wayne, Commander of Pa’s. militia, the largest by far of any of the thirteen colonies. The Judge also had a large stash of money to pay military bonuses with which he often had to hide in caves in Chester, Pa. all during the seven years of fighting. Not just the men in battles were risking their lives. There was, according to my father’s mother, b. 1873, d. at age 98, a price on the capture and execution of Col. Delany from the first day to the last day of the American Revolution. Grandma’s mother, Louisa Margaret Delany McAdam, told how her great-great-grandfather had closed the Port of Philadelphia to the British, the first act of belligerance against the British, even before Lexington and Concord! Whether it was before or just after really doesn’t matter. We can all bet, with his being straight from Ireland where Anthony Sharp, his great-grandfather had been imprisoned several times for his Quaker faith and who was later a Lord Propietor of New Jersey, his Judge grandfather had been mistreated so that he had moved for awhile to New Jersey, and where his father Daniel Delany, Alderman of Dublin, had lived a life of caution under British control, that in Sharp Delany one had a latent freedom-fighter long before 1775!!! He was a highly born aristocrat who even led the effort to do away with showy wigs and refused to wear one. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC to see the original miniature painting of Sharp, which my cousins had no right to sell as it was painted in 1799 by the foremost accurate miniaturist painter of the day, Robert Field, (who liked his painting so well, he SIGNED IT TWICE!), at Sharp’s request with the intention of sending it to my great-grandmother in Northumberland House in Northumberland Co., Virginia. The curator of the MET told me that he was a great favorite of theirs with his powdered wig. I told her, “That’s no wig! He was over sixty years old! He died right after it was painted and had no chance to get it to Margaret, the daughter he so missed!”
    The curator also told me as we walked down the hallway to the viewing, “I know which painting you’re coming to see. You look just like him!” I look like a man and I’m a woman!! I hope I’ve not only inherited his mouth and face shape, his dimpled chin, and his very quick reflexes but also his “stay young looking” gene, too!
    I wish he had lived longer so he could have seen and enjoyed the fruits of his sacrifices. I’d like to do a movie of his incredible life. Most of all, I want Dr./Col. Sharp Delany, Esq. to receive the recognition for founding the U. S. Coast Guard and the U. S. Marine Corps. I also DO NOT WANT TO SEE THE COAST GUARD BECOME PART OF THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE!!!

  • Cheryl Lee

    Sharp Delany must have had a very beautiful wife. She probably looked a lot like him. You see his wife, Ann Margaret Robinson, was the youngest child of her mother, Sarah Sharp, who married secondly, Thomas Robinson, a very wealthy shipping merchant in Ireland and in New Jersey and Philadelphia, while Dr. Sharp Delany, Esquire, was the eldest child of Sarah Sharp’s younger sister, Rachel Sharp, who married Dublin Alderman Daniel Delany. Sharp and his wife were First Cousins!! They married in Trinity Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, 7 September, 1763.
    Rachel and Sarah’s brother, Joseph, married Mary Coleman who had Margaret Sharp who m. Abia Brown whose only dau. Mary m. Moses AUSTIN WHO HAD A SON WHO IS THE FATHER OF TEXAS, STEPHEN F. AUSTIN!!

  • Scott

    As noted by congress and as a practicle mater of reality, the Customs Service had two parts to its marine program. The Revinue Cutter Service, the forebearer of the U.S. Coast Guard is the much better known and documented of the two. But as witnessed by Col Delaney and his barge with sails and refered to in Customs Collector for the Port of Alexandria Charles Lee in his November 21, 1789 reply the Secretary Hamilton, a Customs Service Marine existed before and was seperate from the Revinue Cutter Service begun in 1790. This seperate Customs Marine service predates the Revinue Cutter Service, it existed seprately during the time of the Revinue Cutter Service, and continued after the Revinue Cutter Service became the U.S. Coast Guard. This Marine Service continues today with the Marine Interdiction Agents and the 300 fast interceptor vessels assigned to the Customs and Border Protections Office of Air and Marine.

  • Scott

    No takers on this obscure portion of U.S. naval history? Does the U.S. Customs service marine program as embodied prior to the Revenue Marine and as currently demonstrated in the Customs and Border Protection represent the oldest continuosuly active maritime service of the U.S.A? I postulate that this branch of the Customs Marine predated the Revinue Marine and survived its seporation as the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.

  • Marc Delany

    Please tell me more about the Robisons any one by that name or named Martin or Samuel

    I’m likely related to Martin Robison Delany. Daniel Sharp had a son named Thomas Sterling Delany, Daniel was my great, great, great grandfather, Thomas, his son , was a shipwright, he had a son Henry Beard Delany , my great grandfather that was an episcopalian Bishop circa 1900. I met his wife in 1956. They had a child named Lucius Logan, who was my grandfather, my father was Lloyd Tagachute Delany.. my son now has a son.. so.. Marc Logan Delany Nov 2015