The U.S. Secret Service: Protecting the Presidents Throughout History


Book: The Secret Service in Action, by Harry Edward Neal, 1980. 2011.15.1 . Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC.

The U.S. Secret Service: Protecting Presidents Throughout History

January is often the month for presidential inaugurations. Inauguration Day conjures up images of the parade down Washington, DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue, flags waving, throngs of people lining the route, Secret Service agents sharply dressed in dark suits, long wool coats, sunglasses, and earpieces that coil down the back of their necks. It might seem like the Secret Service has always been part of inaugurations, found anywhere the president of the United States can be found. In reality, the Secret Service has had a shorter history of protecting the president than one might expect.

Established in 1865 by Abraham Lincoln on the same day he was assassinated, the Secret Service has only been working at presidential inaugurations since 1885. Early on, their role was to help local police stop small crimes along the parade route and to keep people from “annoying” the president, while military and police officers were responsible for guarding the president.  In 1894, the Secret Service’s role expanded as they provided informal, part-time protection of Grover Cleveland. Later, following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, Congress informally requested presidential protection. It was not until 1902 that the Secret Service provided full-time protection for the president of the United States.

Initially, only the president received Secret Service protection, and in 1913, this was expanded to include the president-elect.  The president’s immediate family was added to the list of those protected by the Secret Service in 1917, and the vice president was added in 1951.  As a result of Robert Kennedy’s assassination during the 1968 presidential election campaign, major presidential and vice presidential candidates and nominees also joined that list. 

Today, the Secret Service protects the president and his/her immediate family, vice president and his/her immediate family, presidential and vice presidential candidates, former presidents and their spouses, visiting heads of foreign states or governments and their spouses, and foreign diplomatic missions in the U.S. and its territories.

While many people recognize the Secret Service for its role in protecting the president, this branch of law enforcement was originally created with another major purpose: to suppress counterfeit currency. One of its missions remains “safeguard[ing] the nation’s financial infrastructure and payment systems to preserve the integrity of the economy.” The agency was part of the Treasury Department until 2003 (it is now under the Department of Homeland Security).  Training for agents includes time in the field conducting investigations (usually the first six to eight years of their career), as well as time on a protective detail for an individual (usually three to five years). Officers of the Uniformed Division can serve in special support programs such as the Countersniper Support Unit, Canine Explosives Detection Unit, Magnetometer (metal detector) Support Unit, or Emergency Response Team.

Whether protecting the presidents pictured on U.S. currency or the presidents living in the White House, the Secret Service has played an important role in upholding and protecting fundamental aspects of life in the United States.


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