The United States Secret Service came into being on the same day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, which would be ironic if he had actually wanted them to protect him. Before Lincoln left for the theater on April 14, 1865, he wasn’t thinking about his own safety. He was thinking about money.
When this story began, just a few days after the Civil War ended, nearly half of the bills in America were funny money. The national currency was only a couple of years old, and before that, the federal government relied on the states to print “greenback” money from official designs. It was easy to produce and, therefore, easy to fake. Counterfeiters were like Pete McCartney, Thomas Ballard, and Henry C. Cole were plaguing the nation’s economy.
Enter Hugh McCulloch, Secretary of the Treasury, charged by Lincoln with coming up with a solution. McCulloch and his commission proposed the Secret Service as a force to combat counterfeiters, and on that infamous day in April of 1865, Lincoln authorized the new agency that could have saved his life.
The agents of the United States Secret Service were expert multitaskers. They were formed to counter counterfeiting, but this brutal and cunning band of spies proved useful in other ways. There weren’t many federal agencies to handle law enforcement other than the U.S. Park Police and the inspectors for the U.S. Post Office (two names that don’t exactly inspire fear in the criminal element), and the U.S. Marshals. So, in 1867, the Secret Service was charged with:
“detecting persons perpetrating frauds against the government,”
which led them to eventually help investigate the Ku Klux Klan, smugglers and mail robbers, illegal distillers and gamblers, bank robbers, you name it.
Their first presidential protection assignment came in 1884, when they took on protecting President Cleveland part-time and informally. They didn’t become the President’s full-time first line of defense until 1902, after President McKinley was assassinated, and later, they formed the core of what is now the FBI.
Until a century later, the Secret Service was still housed under the U.S. Department of the Treasury. When the Department of Homeland Security was established in 2002, the Secret Service went with it.
While their scope has narrowed from the broad “fraud against the government” since 1867, they still have a hand in high-end counterfeiting cases. They are most well known for protecting the President, his family, the V.P., and former Presidents, but they still investigate and make arrests for counterfeiting and other financial federal crimes (over 29,000 arrests since 2003). They’ve saved the United States tens of billions of dollars, all while saving the President’s hide.