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The U.S Secret Service in History

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As President, Bill Clinton deals with many major issues that affect all of us -- crime, drugs, and the environment, just to name a few. However, when our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), was in office, times were very different. President Lincoln is well known for his leadership during the Civil War and for signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves. However, did you know that he also established the United States Secret Service?

When the United States Secret Service (USSS) was established, its main duty was to prevent the illegal production, or counterfeiting, of money. In the 1800s, America's monetary system was very disorganized. Bills and coins were issued by each state through individual banks, which generated many types of legal currency. With so many different kinds of bills in circulation, it was easy for people to counterfeit money. During President Lincoln's Administration, more than a third of the nation's money was counterfeit. On the advice of Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch, President Lincoln established a commission to stop this rapidly growing problem that was destroying the nation's economy, and on April 14, 1865, he created the United States Secret Service to carry out the commission's recommendations.

The Secret Service officially went to work on July 5, 1865. Its first chief was William Wood. Chief Wood, widely known for his heroism during the Civil War, was very successful in his first year, closing more than 200 counterfeiting plants. This success helped prove the value of the Secret Service, and in 1866 the National Headquarters was established in the Department of the Treasury building in Washington, D.C.

During the evening of the same day President Lincoln established the Secret Service, he was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., by John Wilkes Booth. The country mourned as news spread that the President had been shot. It was the first time in our nation's history that a President had been assassinated. As cries from citizens rang out, Congress began to think about adding Presidential protection to the list of duties performed by the Secret Service. However, it would take another 36 years and the assassination of two more Presidents -- James A. Garfield (March 4, 1881-September 10, 1881) and William McKinley (1897-1901) -- before the Congress added protection of the President to the list of duties performed by the Secret Service.

President Theodore Roosevelt's son Archie salutes as his brother Quentin stands at ease during a roll call of the White House Police. The White House Police eventually came to be known as the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Since 1901, every President from Theodore Roosevelt on has been protected by the Secret Service. In 1917, threats against the President became a felony (a serious crime in the eyes of the law), and Secret Service protection was broadened to include all members of the First Family. In 1951, protection of the Vice President and the President-elect was added. After the assassination of Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) authorized the Secret Service to protect all Presidential candidates.

Today's Secret Service is made up of two primary divisions -- the Uniformed Division and the Special Agent Division. The primary role of the Uniformed Division is protection of the White House and its immediate surroundings, as well as the residence of the Vice President, and over 170 foreign embassies located in Washington, D.C. Originally named the White House Police, the Uniformed Division was established by an Act of Congress on July 1, 1922, during President Warren G. Harding's Administration (1921-1923).

The Special Agent Division is charged with two missions: protection and investigation. During the course of their careers, special agents carry out assignments in both of these areas. Their many investigative responsibilities include counterfeiting, forgery, and financial crimes. In addition to protecting the President, the Vice President, and their immediate families, agents also provide protection for foreign heads of state and heads of government visiting the United States.
The Secret Service protects President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) and his motorcade. Photo Courtesy of the National Archives


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