The Real Reason Abraham Lincoln Created The Secret Service

In the documentary Becoming, now streaming on Netflix, former first lady Michelle Obama talks about one specific aspect of her life: a Secret Service detail. One member of her detail, Allen Taylor, started protecting her in 2008, and continues today — over a decade, says People. "Allen is more like a brother than he is an agent," Obama says during the film. "I've spent a lot of time looking at the back of his head."

The Secret Service is most often associated with protecting the President. As the Service's website explains, the protection is also extended to the Vice President, and the respective families of each. Candidates and nominees running for those offices fall under their responsibility. Former presidents, spouses, and children under age 16 also have Secret Service protection, as do foreign heads of state and their families when they are visiting the United States.

It hasn't always been so. The Secret Service's mandate wasn't expanded to presidential security until 1901, when President William McKinley was assassinated while in office, the third president to die that way in the history of the United States. The first president to be assassinated was Abraham Lincoln, in 1865 ... and, in a deep historical irony, it was Lincoln who established the Service, though not for the purpose protecting the President.

Abraham Lincoln established the Secret Service for a different reason

It wasn't as though there was no danger. There had been attacks on presidents before, and Lincoln's life was in danger from the time he was elected. Allan Pinkerton and his team helped stop a Lincoln assassination plot when the newly-elected president was on his way to take office in Washington D.C.

However, when Lincoln formed the Secret Service, the problem on his mind was counterfeiting. By April 1865, as Time tells us, anywhere from a third to half of American currency was fraudulent. In mid-19th Century America, counterfeiting was surprisingly easy, and it was threatening to ruin the nation's economic system. 

It was Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch who suggested the President establish a "regular permanent force whose job it [would] be to put these counterfeiters out of business." These were the days before the FBI, and his idea was to form a federal law enforcement division, says Mental Floss, called the "Secret Service Division of the Department of the Treasury." Lincoln created the agency on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. That same evening, he attended the theater with his wife, where he was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth, and died the next day.

Over 150 years later, the Secret Service still investigates "crimes against the financial infrastructure of the United States."