Washington’s Marshals

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Michael Aubrecht

September 24 of each year is the anniversary date of the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789. It also means that the United States Marshals Service is a year older. Along with the first federal law enforcement agency in the United States, President George Washington signaled the start of the entire federal judicial system with his signature on that date. It was a broad document covering many positions from judges to prosecutors. Sections 27 and 28 were specific to the U.S. Marshal’s roles and responsibilities. A segment of Section 27 specifically outlines their general powers. It states:

And be it further enacted, That a marshal shall be appointed in and for each district for a term of four years, but shall be to attend the district and circuit courts when sitting therein, and also the Supreme Court in the district in which that court sit. (b) And to execute throughout the district, all lawful precepts directed to him, and issued under the authority of the United States, and he shall have the power to command all necessary assistance in the execution of his duty, and to appoint as shall be occasion, one or more deputies…

The final version of the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789 was a long endeavor that took considerable time of that year to be completed and approved. Congress had difficulty defining the specific terms of the document and the sections pertaining to the U.S. Marshals were likely written by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut. Ellsworth was an American lawyer, judge, politician and diplomat. The language of the act was carefully-phrased legal language that was attributed to Ellsworth. Debates on the bill that became the Act finally ended on July 17, 1789 and there were disagreements on how much power should be allotted to the Marshals.

The House of Representatives referred the bill to a committee, which reported its findings on August 13. Despite the apprehension of some, and others wanting additional amendments, the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789 went forward for approval. President Washington made his initial appointments two days later. On September 26, he signed the commissions of thirteen Marshals.

While much has been studied on the first United States Marshals, little known is the back story of their applications. Among the first Marshals were John Adams’s son-in-law Congressman William Stephens Smith for the District of New York. In his initial letter to each of the first U.S. Marshals, dated September 30, 1789, President Washington wrote in part,

Sir: I have the pleasure to inform you that you are appointed [United States] Marshal for the District of [Name of State] and your Commission is enclosed, accomplished with such Laws [sic] as have passed relative to the Judicial Department of the United States.

President Washington purposely left the language simple, partially because he saw multiple or potential uses for the new office that extended far beyond the courthouse. The powers were not fully defined at that time. The first federal Census was one of their initial duties, and the one that he emphasized in the first year.

In President Washington’s second term, he witnessed another example of the benefits of the U.S. Marshal. He instructed them to serve summons on certain citizens refusing to pay the federal tax on whiskey. Known as the “Whiskey Rebellion,” the President became aware of the dangers of resistance to the U.S. Marshal in the process. While the “Whiskey Rebellion” faded, it further defined the threats that Marshals faced.

Threats were nothing new. Fourteen Marshals had served in the military during the Revolutionary War. By the end of the war, one, the youngest, was a private; one briefly served as a Captain; two were Majors; three were Lieutenant Colonels; five were Colonels; one was a Brigadier General; and one, too young to serve, was a general’s aide.

Most Marshals were loyal members of the president’s political party and opposed to his opponents. Washington expected them to support the party’s ties within their Districts. Consequently, most lost their job as a U.S. Marshal when another party came to power. Seven of the first sixteen retained their position and lived their entire lives in the Districts they served.

From 1789 to 2018 and beyond George Washington’s first agency of federal law enforcement continues to carry on his vision. The first president’s call has been answered by over 200 years of justice, service, and integrity. The office is not only beneficial, but vital to our public safety and woven into the fabric of our country’s long history. Today the duties of the U.S. Marshals Service include protecting the federal judiciary, apprehending federal fugitives, managing and selling seized assets acquired by criminals through illegal activities, housing and transporting federal prisoners and operating the Witness Security Program.



*Michael Aubrecht is an administrator in the Organized Crime and Gangs Branch of the United States Marshals Service*

*For more information about the U.S. Marshals, click here.



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