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Hamilton’s Revenue Fleet

The following article, Hamilton’s Revenue Fleet by Hyman R. Kaplan was first published in Naval Institute Proceedings in October, 1962.

After nearly 172 years of obscurity, a hitherto neglected exchange of correspondence between Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, and Sharp Delany, first Federal Collector of Customs at Philadelphia, has been uncovered in the voluminous files of the Philadelphia Customs House.

Fragile and yellowed with age, the letters shed new light on early American history as well as on the origins of the U . S. Coast Guard, initially sponsored by Hamilton in 1790.

Illustration of USRC Massachusetts
Illustration of USRC Massachusetts

The story begins on 7 August 1789, when Colonel Delany gratefully acknowledged his appointment as Collector of Customs at Philadelphia to President Washington about three months after the first President had taken office. His letter follows:

              Phila. 7th August 1789


I inclose an acknowledgment as directed in your letter of the 5th Inst.

I shall this day enter on the Duties of my Office and I trust execute them in the only manner which can give satisfaction to the best and most beloved of men, that of doing my Duty and promoting the interests of the Union.

I hereby acknowledge to have received my appointment as Collector of the Port of Philadelphia by the President of the United States on the 6th Inst. at 9 o’clock PM. 

S. Delany

To Tobias Lear Esq. Secretary to the President of the United States

This marked the beginning of an active correspondence, mainly by Delany, with his superior, Alexander Hamilton. The Delany letters have been preserved in an old folio which clearly shows the marks of time.

A zealous public servant, Colonel Delany was also a patriot of unquestioned integrity. Though not so personally brilliant as Hamilton, he was in his way an outstanding personality and had made a distinguished record in the Revolutionary War.

Born in Ireland, Delany had come to Philadelphia when a youth and had established a successful business as a druggist. Early in the war, he had taken a prominent part in organizing his countrymen for military action.  He was a Deputy to the Provincial Convention in January 1775, and one month before the Declaration of Independence, he organized a company of militia of which he was made captain.  Afterwards, he became colonel of the Pennsylvania Battalion and was appointed Commissioner to seize the personal effects of traitors. Before the establishment of the Federal Constitution, he was a member of the Committee of Merchants which prepared measures for the regulation of commerce.

At the time of his appointment as first U. S. Collector,  Delany was no novice at his job.  Five years before the passage of the first Act Creating a Customs Service on 4 July 1789, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had established a Customs House in Philadelphia and had placed Colonel Delany in charge.  He was thoroughly aware of the problems confronting him.

And his task was by no means trivial.  By 1789, U. S. independence was an accomplished fact, the formal peace treaty with Great Britain having been ratified by Congress on 14 January 1784.  But the founders of the Republic were discovering that political independence was one thing, and economic solvency another.

At the time Delany assumed office, the young nation was still undergoing a financial crisis.  Its coffers had been depleted by the long and costly Revolutionary struggle. A complete sense of national identity had not yet been achieved, and there was still some reluctance on the part of the states to yield a portion of their sovereignty to a Federal government.

A more immediate crisis, however, faced both men in the summer of 1789.  Putting it bluntly, the smuggling which had been a respectable activity in the years before the Revolution now threatened to drain the nation of its financial lifeblood.  There was real danger that, unless this practice could be curbed, the Republic would founder on the shoals of bankruptcy.

For some time, Hamilton had been contemplating the establishment of a marine agency to assist in the collection of revenues. By 1789, there was already a revenue fleet which had been carrying out its duties on an experimental basis. The experiment had been so successful that thought was being given to setting up a permanent Federal agency to continue its work.

Apparently, Colonel Delany had also thought deeply about the matter, for on 31 October 1789, he wrote to Hamilton:


I should have laid my Ideas respecting boats before you long since-had I not thought that 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 great degree prevent smuggling. The great length of our River, the many Creeks and inlets, the great number of small craft, are great inducements to evil disposed people  to attempt evading the Laws – nay, from Information I am well convinced that such doings may have taken place already, especially in Coffee which is an article easily run-from the nature of its packages being generally imported in small bags. And 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 as far down the river as possible.

Mr. Meredith fully agreed with me on this head – and in consequence I procured a Barge with Sails and kept her constantly plying between this port and Newcastle with directions to board every Vessel, receive their manifests, and place an officer on board, and I am well assured it has been of great use – prevented many attempts that would have been made, and in a great degree discouraged all such intentions, as far as it has plied.  For 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 not be less than three – at least in first setting out.  A Decked Boat to ply at the Capes and in the Bay – a Row Boat to be stationed at Reedy Island to ply between Philadelphia and Newcastle.  And always to take such of the inspectors as may be off duty and put them on board such vessels as they may meet coming up.

The expense and equipment of such Boats, I shall have an Estimate drawn and forwarded as soon as possible.  I beg sir you will excuse the incoherence of my letters as I am yet so unwell as to be obliged to write them in bed.  I have scarce strength to read them over.  I am Sir with great respect –

Your most humble servant

Sharp Delany

Oct. 31, 1789

It was indeed a long letter for a sick man, and Colonel Delany may well be forgiven for his frequent unorthodox punctuation.  In all probability he was convalescing from an attack of yellow fever which had struck the Philadelphia area.  But his meaning was quite clear.  Hamilton evidently agreed with him as to the necessity for some type of patrol, and on 7 May 1790, he wrote:


The establishment of Custom house boats as you are informed, is under the consideration of Congress at this time. But the circumstances which led to the temporary arrangement in your district appears still to be of so much weight as to induce to a continuance of the measure until the proposed establishment shall have been completed. 

I am with respect 


Your obedt. Servt. 

A. Hamilton 

Secy. of the Treasury

Less than three months later, on 4 August 1790, the First Congress, at Hamilton’s urging, authorized the construction of revenue.” Total cost of the new fleet was approximately $100,000—a bargain by any standards. America’s first Revenue Fleet had become a reality.

The new-born service was first known as the Revenue Marine, and became the earliest direct ancestor of the present-day Coast Guard. It may be argued, however, that the service dates back to 1789 when a customs fleet was already in being in the Philadelphia area.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the agency was designated as the Revenue Cutter Service. Then in 1915, Congress consolidated the Revenue Cutter Service with the long-established Life-Saving Service to form the nucleus of the modern Coast Guard. Originally, therefore, the service was conserved of by Hamilton as a seagoing adjunct to the Customs Service. Indeed, for many years of its existence—notably during the Civil War period—the vessels of the service were under the jurisdiction of the various Collectors of Customs. Thus the Coast Guard from its earliest inception has been closely associated with the Treasury Department.

During the period covered by the letters—7 August 1789 to 13 December 1790—Hamilton was reaching the zenith of a dazzling career. Although only 32 years old, he already had distinguished himself as an officer in the Revolutionary Army, as an attorney, and as a government official. In 1788, he had been elected to the Constitutional Convention of the State of New York as one of 65 delegates. New York eventually ratified the Constitution, and Hamilton’s letters on this subject are models of grace and lucidity—qualities of which he possessed in abundance. Ahead of him lay additional years of achievement as Secretary of the Treasury during which he had labored unceasingly to build up a sound national credit. His death on 11 July 1804 as the result of a bullet wound suffered in a duel with Aaron Burr was a national calamity.

It is certain, however, that he would be very happy to know that his brain child, the U. S. Coast Guard, is still very much alive and that its range of activity goes far beyond anything conceived of in those early days.