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Oldest Federal Law Enforcement Agency


The oldest federal law enforcement agency in the United States is truly the Marshals Service.

The agency was formed by the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789. The act specifically determined that law enforcement was to be the U.S. Marshals' primary function. Therefore it appropriately defined marshals as law enforcement officers.

The text of Section 27 of the Judiciary Act reads:

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 removable from office at pleasure, whose duty it shall be to attend the district and circuit courts when sitting therein, and also the Supreme Court in the district in which that court shall 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 ... *1

Section 28 of the Judiciary Act authorizes the U.S. marshal or deputy marshal to execute federal judicial writs and process. It also required sworn personnel and continuity in office. Such language was designed to give the U.S. marshals a wide latitude of powers and the authority to deputize. The direct connection to the federal court system indicated the early need to execute lawful precepts throughout the new nation. *2

Today, almost all federal, local and state entities acknowledge the Marshals Service as the oldest or first federal law enforcement agency. Other federal agencies have mistakenly believed they were the first. However, their claims fall short when researched in proper context. Although they had equally important functions, they were not conceived on the model of law enforcement at the same time.

Origins of the Judiciary Act and the U.S. Marshals

President George Washington outlined the origins of his vision of the U.S. marshal in a new nation. In a letter dated Jan. 31, 1785, he let slip a possible model in correcting a French poet in private correspondence. "I am no Marshall [sic] of France, nor do I hold any Commission, or fill any Office under that Government, or any other whatever." *3

Whether intentional or not, Washington gave the judicial branch this important emphasis in his mind when Congress formed the Judiciary Act. His proposed address to Congress in April 1789, although not used, stated that the body "will be pleased therefore to let a supreme regard for equal justice and the inherent rights of the citizens be visible in all your proceedings" when organizing the Judicial Department. *4

Congress worked feverishly on the Judiciary Act in the late spring and early summer of 1789. It was largely the embodiment of a committee of 10 in the First Federal Congress. The framers of the act included Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and William Paterson of New Jersey. Ellsworth, Paterson and Massachusetts Senator Caleb Strong had a superior grasp of law, so much of the drafting went through them. Lee was only one of two Anti-Federalists in the group, so a strong, centralized Judiciary Act was assured from the start. Nonetheless, Section 27 was written by an unknown hand - likely a clerk. Ellsworth penned most of the draft and likely contributed the necessary language that created the U.S. Marshals. *5

As the debate over the Judiciary Act continued over the course of the summer, the first reading of the bill prompted the first prospective U.S. marshals to write President Washington. On June 19, 1789, Pennsylvanian Clement Biddle was among the first applicants. He wrote:

Being informed that the Judiciary Bill is in forward and that there will probably be a marshal of the federal Court for the district of Pennsylvania, I beg leave to inform you, that on my retiring from the Army, I was appointed Marshal of the Court of Admiralty for this State ... *6

Many of these early office seekers were not necessarily naming their desired position. For instance, William Smith of New York wrote Washington on May 12, well before the first reading, stating that he sought "an appointment at home or abroad." Jonathan Jackson of Massachusetts applied "for an office with reasonable emoluments," as he had to support nine children. *7

The debate continued until the bill passed the Senate on July 17, 1789. One of the oddities of the process was the first U.S. marshal of Virginia, Edward Carrington, disapproved of the Judiciary Bill in the presented form. The House referred it to a Committee of the Whole, which made its report on August 13. More amendments were proposed, but these had no bearing on the formation of the U.S. Marshals. After the debate of these additions, the Judiciary Act was signed on September 24. The present-day Marshals Service was born right alongside the American judicial system. *8

Washington's Intent

On Sept. 30, 1789, a form letter was sent to the first generation of U.S. marshals. It read in part:

Sir: I have the pleasure to inform you that you are appointed (Marshal or Attorney) for the District of __________ and your Commission is enclosed, accomplished with such Laws as have passed relative to the Judicial Department of the United States. *9

The phrasing was vague and it did not delineate the extent of their law enforcement powers. Washington felt it hinged on future Congresses to outline it, but already the U.S. marshals were tasked with taking the first federal census. An idea of Washington's own political emphasis on the office of marshal was evident in an August 179 1 letter to fellow patriot Benjamin Lincoln. District of Massachusetts Marshal Jonathan Jackson had resigned, leaving the president to appoint a second person in that office. Washington wrote:

My dear Sir: As it never has been my intention to bestow double Offices on the same person, and my design that those Marshalls [sic] who have received Appointments under the late Revenue Act should hold the former (i.e. the Marshalls office) until the first of the present month (The time by which the Census was to be returned, or until this business should be accomplished) and no longer, it behooves me to look for a successor to Mr. Jackson in the office of Marshall, for the District of Massats. How beneficial this office may be, I know not. *10

The importance of the U.S. marshal in the nation's early years was evident during the first census in 1790 and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 - in which the federal government enforced unpopular taxes on the beverage. While not the most lucrative of offices, there were few with greater respect.

The same office that President George Washington envisioned nearly 215 years ago has grown in responsibility and excelled - all the while living up to the standards of justice, integrity and service. Despite the achievements of other agencies, legal standing and original intent underscore that the United States Marshals Service is the oldest and first federal law enforcement agency.


*1. "An Act to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States" in Statutes at Large, Session 1, Chap. XX, Section 27, Sept. 24, 1789.

*2. Ibid., Section 28.

*3. George Washington to Aeneas Lamont, Jan. 31, 1785, in John Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Volume 28 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1938), p. 45-46.

*4. George Washington, Proposed Address to Congress, April 1789, in John Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Volume 30 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939), p. 304.

*5. David Eisenberg, Christine Jordan, Maeva Marcus and Emily Van Tassel, introduction, in The Judiciary Act of 1789 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989), p. 3-4; Charles Warren, "New Light on the History of the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789," Harvard Law Review, Vol. 37, No. 11, p. 50-51; Frederick Calhoun, "The Judiciary Act of 1789: Charter for U.S. Marshals and Deputies," The Pentacle.

*6. Clement Biddle to President George Washington, June 19, 1789, George Washington Papers, Series 7, Presidential Appointments, Reel 119, Library of Congress Manuscript Room.

*7. Galliard Hunt, Calendar of Applications and Recommendations for Office During the Presidency of George Washington (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1901), p. 119; Ibid., p. 66.

*8. Warren, "New Light," p. 109-110; Ibid., p. 116- 117; Ibid., p. 131.

*9. To the Marshals and Attorneys of the Several Districts of the United States, Sept. 30, 1789, in Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Volume 30, p. 424.

*10. George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, Aug. 14, 1791, in Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Volume 31 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939), p. 335-336.