The History of the Secret Service

Secret Service Special Agents and Special Officers (foreground) protecting the President of the United States, George W. Bush in 2007.

The U.S. Secret Service, which protects the President, began in 1865. The original purpose of this agency was very different from what it is today.

The U.S. Secret Service was established in 1865– the year President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Ironically, this agency was not originally designed to protect the president and other government officials. It would not be until the assassination of another president almost 40 years later that the Secret Service would adopt this duty.

The Early Days of the Secret Service (1865-1901)

The Secret Service began in 1865 as a means of safeguarding the nation’s currency. In fact, prior to twenty-sixth president Theodore Roosevelt’s administration (1901-09), presidential security was provided haphazardly through a mixture of private security, local police officers, and presidential confidants.

1901: The Assassination of President William McKinley Changes Secret Service’s Role

Prior to twenty-fifth president William McKinley’s time in office (1897-1901), two presidents – Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, respectively — had been assassinated. Still, there was no formal agency established to protect the chief executive. Before 1901, the White House was a very public building. Three times a week, large numbers of guests from the general public visited the McKinley White House. President McKinley shook hands and conversed with these guests on a routine basis.

Unbeknownst to the president, his secretary was becoming very concerned about some of the mail his boss was receiving. For example, some of the letters mentioned “infernal machines” that the writers claimed had been planted near the Executive Mansion. During this period, the Intelligence Bureau of the Treasury, as the Secret Service was called in those days, was too busy dealing with countfeiters and Spanish spies. (The Spanish-American War (1898) was one of the major events of the McKinley presidency.)

Despite these warnings, no nighttime security guards were posted at the White House. When anyone suggested that the president hire a bodyguard, the notion was scoffed at. In fact, McKinley was strongly opposed to any form of Secret Service protection. No matter how hard anyone tried to convince him, the president refused to allow his guard to be increased. He also refused to change his scheduled appearances.

On September 5, 1901, McKinley traveled to Buffalo, New York, to speak at the Pan-American Exposition. He arrived there the next day at around 3:30 p.m. At 4:07 p.m., McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz, a Detroit-born anarchist of Polish extraction while circulating through a crowd at Buffalo’s Temple of Music. McKinley died a week later. In the wake of this tragedy, the Secret Service’s role changed from that of a money-protection agency to that of a presidential-protection one.

The Secret Service Today

Today, the Secret Service protects the president, vice president, their families, heads of state, and other designated individuals. According to its mission statement, the Secret Service fulfills two major missions: protection and criminal investigations.


  1. Harris, Bill. The First Ladies Fact Book, p. 356-9. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2005.