From George Washington and the early days of the Revolutionary War, to Barack Obama, this TDC original mini-documentary tells the history of the U.S. Secret Service.
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Video by Bryce Plank and Robin West
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The Secret Service is a protective cloak around the President of the United States. The agency symbolizes the power and importance of our nation’s highest office. Today, its taken for granted that stoic agents wearing suits and earpieces are constantly watching over our Commander-in-Chief, but the President wasn’t always this protected.
This is the history of the U.S. Secret Service.
During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered a “Lifeguard” be formed to protect him, along with the money and official papers of the Continental Army.
This is a passage from historian Ron Chernow’s biography on Washington:
“…’To guard against assassination — which I neither expect nor dread — is impossible,’ Washington later wrote. But he knew that kidnapping attempts were always a possibility, especially since he himself would hatch a couple of failed schemes to kidnap British generals. His order to forge a personal guard — or “lifeguard” as it was commonly called — also sprang from a desire to be surrounded by a crack team of disciplined professionals who would accompany him whenever he rode out to review the troops. Protective of his historical reputation, Washington committed the care of his personal papers to this guard. Having such an elite corps at the beck and call of the chief general was a throwback to the glittering world of European armies.”
The men assigned to the Commander-In-Chief’s Guard were honored to be trusted to protect their beloved general. For this reason, special care was taken to ensure the soldiers serving in the prestigious unit represented each of the 13 colonies. It was disbanded in 1783 at the conclusion of the war.
In 1865, Abraham Lincoln resurrected Washington’s idea, creating an elite outfit of federal law enforcement officials to combat the counterfeiting of American dollars that had been rampant during the Civil War. One-third of all US currency in circulation was reportedly fake, so there was much work to be done to secure the integrity of the nation’s monetary system that powered the entire economy. Ironically, the legislation establishing the Secret Service was awaiting Lincoln’s signature on his desk the night he was assassinated—a strange coincidence, even if the agency wasn’t tasked with protecting the President for another 36 years.
Fast-forward to a sweltering September afternoon in 1901.
While greeting hundreds of people in a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, President William McKinley was shot twice by an assassin who had used a handkerchief to conceal his weapon. McKinley eventually succumbed to his wounds and died eight days later.
This finally forced Congress to act, legally mandating the Secret Service to protect the President. In a sign of the frequent obstinance of the US Congress, three Presidents — Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and McKinley — perished by assassins before America’s legislative body did something to address the glaring problem.
In 1950, the only secret service agent ever killed while protecting a president died during an assassination attempt on Harry Truman.
[Newsreel]: “Outside Blair House — the President’s temporary Washington home — extreme fanatics of the Puerto Rican nationalist party try to force their way in, guns blazing, to assassinate the President of the United States.”
The assailants opened fire on agent Leslie Coffelt and other White House Police officers. Despite being mortally wounded, Coffelt returned fire and killed one of the attackers with a single shot.
The darkest day in the history of Secret Service came on November 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy, riding through downtown Dallas in a convertible, was shot twice and killed. An investigation by the US House of Representatives eventually determined that “the Secret Service did not properly analyze information it possessed prior to the assassination and was inadequately prepared to protect the President.”...