Did Theodore Roosevelt Really Invent the US Secret Service?

When the name “United States Secret Service “ (USSS) is uttered today, most people conjure up a vision of special agents with super powers slinking around, incognito - no, almost invisible - watching everything that goes on around the President of the United States and protecting the president with unwavering dedication.  But, this isn’t quite a correct vision. And it doesn’t at all describe the first Secret Service agents in our country’s history. 

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The Secret Service was actually created on April 14,1865 to battle counterfeit currency that was on the rise, big time! And it wasn’t created by President Theodore Roosevelt.  At the time, the American monitory system was in disarray. Rather than having a central system of issuing bills and coins, both could be issued by each state through individual banks. This allowed for the creation and circulation of many types of legal currency, which left the door open for easy counterfeiting. The estimate at the time was that fake currency accounted for about 1/3 of all currency in circulation in the United States. To address this problem and crack down on counterfeiters, President Abraham Lincoln created the Secret Service in the Department of the Treasury. During the first year the Service was in existence, it shut down 200 counterfeit operations.

But, there was no mention at all in the Secret Service’s mandate about protecting the president.  Security around the president remained informal and quite lax.

Presidential security was so lax in fact that later in the evening of April 14, 1864, after creating the US Secret Service, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth while watching a play at Ford’s Theatre. Now the nation turned its thoughts toward the safety of the president.  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 Congress added protection of the President to the list of duties performed by the US Secret Service.

So in 1901 Theodore Roosevelt, when he became our 26th President of the United States after President William McKinley was assassinated, was the first president to have protection by the US Secret Service. His new USSS detail consisted of exactly two agents. If you join us on our Pickle Pea White House As A Home Walk, Quentin Roosevelt, President Roosevelt’s youngest child, will proudly tell you all about the Secret Service agents and the local police who were assigned to protect his father.  Can you imagine what it must have been like to be an new USSS agent assign to protect Theodore Roosevelt --- and deal with his 6 very rambunctious children!?!

But there was still no protection for the vice-president or the First Family. This did not come about until the late 1950’s -1960’s.

Today the USSS protects:

·      The President of the United Sates

·      The Vice-President of the United States

·      The president’s and vice-president’s immediate families

·      Former presidents, their spouses and their minor children (under the age of 16)

·      Foreign Heads of State and their families that are visiting the United States 

·      Major presidential and vice-presidential candidates and their spouses

·      Events designated as National Security events as determined by the Department of Homeland Security

(Jurisdiction over the USSS was transferred from the Department of Treasury to the Department of Homeland Security in March, 2003)

The Uniformed Division of the USSS is responsible for securing the White House itself. They must screen all visitors to the White House and make sure that no one with intent to harm the president gets anywhere near him/her. They are the first line of defense in and around the White House proper. These agents wear uniforms because they perform many of the same duties police do. You can see them posted around the White House (even on the roof) and on the White House grounds. The Uniformed Division also has special units --- the Countersniper Support Unit, Canine Explosives Detection Unit, Magnetometer (metal detector) Support Unit, and the Emergency Response Team.

Other USSS agents who are not in uniform provide active protection by traveling with the president and blending with the surrounding environment. This allows them to better observe the activities of people in the area. The Metropolitan Police and the National Park Service Police also assist the USSS in protecting the president.  

The USSS today also investigates people who make threats against the president, the vice-president or anyone they are mandated to protect.


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