Skip to Content

U.S. Marshals Service

History - Civilian Enforcers

This is an excerpt from The Lawmen: United States Marshals and Their Deputies: 1789-1989, by Frederick S. Calhoun |   There are five web pages associated with this theme:Broad Range of Authority > General Practitioners > Peril of Your Life > Civilian Enforcers > Loyal to Their Communities

Civilian Enforcers

Yet, in performing their duties in the face of opposition from the local populace and governments, the Marshals served an extremely important function. They were the barrier between civilian government and military rule. They were the civilian enforcers of the law.

When the Marshals were overcome by opposition, the presidents under whom they served had little choice but to call out the military. Marshal David Lenox's brief captivity by the Whiskey Rebels convinced President Washington to muster 13,000 state militiamen to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.  Deputy Marshals enforce the court-ordered registration of James Meredith

At the University of Mississippi in 1962, Deputy Marshals enforce the court-ordered registration of James Meredith a black American who wanted an education at a college of his choice.  Lt. Governor Paul Johnson confronts Chief Marshal James McShane as he escorts Meredith to the registrar's office where he was admitted to the school.  For the next year, until Meredith graduated in August 1963, Marshals protected him on the campus.  The Department of Justice recently had a commemoration of this historic event.

President John F. Kennedy reluctantly sent military forces to Oxford, Mississippi.

The Marshals in the southern states after the Civil War enforced the new Civil Rights acts, but they frequently called on the army for assistance. On the night of September 30, 1962, President John F. Kennedy reluctantly sent military forces to Oxford, Mississippi. after a major riot erupted over the attempt by Marshals to enforce the court-ordered enrollment of James Meredith.

Deputy Marshals arrest protesters at the Pentagon in October 1967Deputy Marshals arrest protesters at the Pentagon in October 1967.  During the Vietnam War, the Marshals helped protect government buildings from anti-war demonstrators

At the Pentagon in October 1967, anti-Vietnam War demonstrators confronted a thin, single-file line of Marshals blocking their path to the Defense Department. Behind the Marshals, and clearly supplying the government's muscle, stood large numbers of regular Army troops. Standing between the rioters and the Army, the Marshals symbolized the civilian power of the government which, when overcome, allowed the Amy to step into the fray. At the same time, the Marshals were on hand to take arrests, a civilian power not usually bestowed on the military.   

In a government based on the concept of civilian supremacy, the U.S. Marshals and their Deputies provided the civilian enforcement power. The military was restricted to emergency support. Early on, the federal government adopted measures to make its authority more palatable to the American people. Those who enforced federal laws at the local level generally came from that locality. They understood the people, for they were dealing with their friends and neighbors.

This was particularly important in the 19th century when lack of communications made the national government distant and seemingly foreign, but everyone knew or had heard of the Marshal because he had been active in community affairs and politics for years.

For most of their history, U.S. Marshals enjoyed a surprising degree of independence in performing their duties. Quite simply, no headquarters or central administration existed to supervise the work of the Marshals until the late 1950s. Even then, the Executive Office for U.S. Marshals had no real power over the districts until it was transformed into the U.S. Marshals Service in 1969 and given control of the district budgets and the hiring of Deputies. Prior to that, each Marshal was practically autonomous, receiving only general guidance from the executive branch of the government.

As a result. the Marshals; working with the federal judges and U.S. Attorneys in their districts, enjoyed a wide latitude in determining how they would enforce the law. For most of them, the solution was to go as easily as possible. Few of them wanted to give offense to their friends and neighbors, particularly since they knew all to well that the job of Marshal was temporary. Unless they were prepared to leave their homes after their commissions expired, the Marshals struggled to balance the enforcement of Federal laws against the feelings of the local populace.

continue.... Loyal to their Community is an official site of the U.S. Federal Government, U.S. Department of Justice