Coast Guard Commandant Paul A. Yost kicked off the year of 1990 with a very special announcement: the establishment of the Coast Guard Bicentennial Unit Commendation and its award to the United States Coast guard in toto. Interestingly, Yost’s proclamation noted that the honor was for “extraordinary level of service to the government and citizens of the United States for 200 years and in particular from March 1989 through October 1989”—but the award was presented to all Coast Guard personnel members and who served satisfactorily for any period between June 4, 1989 and August 4, 1990. Why the discrepancy in the dates mentioned by the Commandant and the award’s eligibility dates?
It might have something to do with how you define the “founding” of the Coast Guard.
On July 4, 1789, President Washington signed the Tariff Act of 1789, which authorized the collection of duties or tariffs for imported goods, implying some type of Federal authority to enforce such regulations. That the legislation passed was somewhat ironic: the Revolutionary War was fueled by the free importation of goods from France and other countries, and now the fledgling government was seeking to criminalize the behavior. Regardless, the passage of this Act could be viewed as the genesis of the Coast Guard.
But most historians point to August 4, 1790 as the true anniversary date of the Coast Guard. This was when Congress authorized Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to create a maritime service to enforce customs laws—i.e., stop smuggling and collect tariffs and duties. This would seem to be the definitive date that the Coast Guard set sail, so to speak, especially since these “revenue cutters” would be the only source of maritime power wielded by the United States for the next eight years.
Unless you look back less than a year earlier to the passage of legislation creating the United States Lighthouse Establishment under the control of the Department of the Treasury. Lighthouses were and still are essential Aids to Navigation, one of the Coast Guard’s primary duties—so perhaps August 7, 1989 marks the bicentennial?
At the end of the day, the eligibility dates of 4 June 1989 to 4 August 1990 seem to have been crafted to encompass all the major dates of historic importance in the establishment of the United States Coast Guard, which did not begin to operate under that name until January 28, 1915.