Quick Study: How did the Secret Service start?

The U.S. Secret Service has a 150-year history, but it wasn't always charged with protecting the president.
The U.S. Secret Service has a 150-year history, but it wasn't always charged with protecting the president.

During a hearing March 24 before a congressional committee, the Secret Service, charged with protecting the president and his family, came under fire for missteps that could leave the White House vulnerable. 

     Recent problems center on the behavior of agents -- one had allegedly been drinking just before the car he was driving bumped a barricade in front of the White House. But there were also more serious concerns. In September 2014, a man jumped the White House fence and bolted through the front door.
     No one questions the need for effective security around the president, vice president, their families and even presidential candidates and their families. But that wasn't always the case.
     This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Secret Service. While known for the suited men and women with serious faces, dark glasses and ear pieces who protect the president, the agency has a far broader mission. In fact, it wasn’t until after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 that the Secret Service was formally given the task of protecting the president.

     The Country’s Early Years: The picture of a ruler sitting in a palace with guards all around brought to mind the English monarchy. Early American leaders wanted to make a different statement.
    “On his inauguration day, Thomas Jefferson walked from his boarding house to the Capitol, unaccompanied by any guard, to take the oath of office,” according to the Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren and known as the Warren Commission.
     There was cause for concern, even so. The country's sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was personally threatened, but “the president asked for no protection and continued to indulge his fondness for solitary walks and early morning swims in the Potomac,” the report said.

     Jan. 30, 1835: An assassination attempt on President Andrew Jackson failed when the assailant’s pistol misfired. There was still no move to protect the president. (When Martin Van Buren took office in 1837, he would walk to church alone and ride his horse solo in the woods.)

     March 4, 1861: Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. Even before he took office, Lincoln was getting death threats. For his inauguration, there was an unprecedented military presence: “Soldiers occupied strategic points throughout the city, along the procession route, and at the Capitol, while armed men in plain clothes mingled with the crowds. Lincoln himself, in a carriage with President Buchanan, was surrounded on all sides by such dense masses of soldiers that he was almost completely hidden from the view of the crowds,” recounted the Warren Commission's A Brief History of Presidential Protection. “The precautions at the Capitol during the ceremony were almost as thorough and equally successful.”

     1861-1865: Various attempts were made to protect the president. At one point, the military accompanied Lincoln during his travels. 

     April 14, 1865: Lincoln established the Secret Service to thwart counterfeiters. That night, the president was shot as he watched a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. There had been a permanent detail of four police officers assigned to protect him. But the officer who had been guarding Lincoln that night ducked out and headed for a saloon, according to a Smithsonian.com article, Lincoln's Missing Bodyguard. The president died the next morning, April 15, 1865.

     Post Civil War: There was a congressional investigation into Lincoln’s assassination, but it didn’t call for efforts to protect the president in the future. As summed up in A Brief History of Presidential Protection: “This lack of concern for the protection of the president may have derived also from the tendency of the time to regard Lincoln's assassination as part of a unique crisis that was not likely to happen to a future Chief Executive.”
     For a time after the Civil War, the War Department assigned soldiers to guard the White House, and metropolitan police occasionally helped with crowd control.

     July 5, 1865: The agency (then the Secret Service Division) started work, charged with suppressing counterfeit currency.

     July 2, 1881: President James A. Garfield was shot in Washington by Charles Guiteau, who had been actively stalking the president. James Blaine, secretary of state, wrote a letter to members of the country’s foreign service: “The surgeons, on consultation, regard his wounds as very serious, though not necessarily fatal. His vigorous health gives strong hopes of his recovery.” But doctors were unable to remove the bullet, and Garfield died of blood poisoning on Sept. 19.  

     1894: The Secret Service began protecting President Grover Cleveland – part time -- after a group of gamblers planned to assassinate the president. “For a time, two agents rode in a buggy behind President Cleveland's carriage,” according to the Warren Commission, “but this practice attracted so much attention in the opposition newspapers that it was soon discontinued at the president's insistence.”

     Sept. 6, 1901: President William McKinley was shot during a reception in Buffalo, New York, by Leon F. Czolgosz, 28, an unemployed mill worker. McKinley actually was heavily guarded when he was shot. There were three Secret Service officers, police detectives and soldiers in the immediate area.
     But Czolgosz, an anarchist said to suffer from delusions, had no problem coming in contact with the president. He simply stood on line during the reception. When it was his turn to shake the president’s hand, Czolgosz pulled out a gun, hidden under a handkerchief, and fired a shot. McKinley died Sept. 14.
     This was a dramatic jolt -- the third assassination of a president within 36 years. Some people were old enough to remember the Lincoln and Garfield assassinations.
     So how did the duty of protecting the president fall to the Secret Service? The Warren Commission recounts that in 1902 the Secret Service was “then the only Federal general investigative agency of any consequence.”
     That year,the Secret Service assumed full-time responsibility for protecting the president. Two men were assigned full time to the White House. Additional agents went with the president when he traveled or took a vacation.
     Ironically, Theodore Roosevelt, who was a small child when the funeral procession for Lincoln passed before his home in New York City, became the first president with Secret Service protection. Here is what he had to say about it in a letter to his friend, Henry Cabot Lodge:
     “The Secret Service men are a very small but very necessary thorn in the flesh. Of course, they would not be the least use preventing any assault upon my life. I do not believe there is any danger of such an assault, and if there were, as Lincoln said, ‘though it would be safer for a President to live in a cage, it would interfere with his business.’ But it is only the Secret Service men who render life endurable, as you would realize if you saw the procession of carriages that pass through the place, the procession of people on foot who try to get into the place, not to speak of the multitude of cranks and others who are stopped in the village.”

    Quick Study is compiled by YT&Twebzine editors using these sources:


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