Patriotism and Profit: The American Privateers

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Early American naval forces relied heavily on privateers-privately owned warships commissioned by the government-during the American Revolution and War of 1812.

Compared to British naval might, the American national navy was vastly outnumbered in both the American Revolution and War of 1812. To offset this difference, the country turned to privateering. Thomas Jefferson noted in 1812 that:

“…every possible encouragement should be given to privateering in time of war with a commercial nation…our national ships are too few in number…to retaliate the acts of the enemy…by licensing private armed vessels, the whole naval force of the nation is truly brought to bear on the foe.”

The country enthusiastically embraced the practice. During the Revolution alone, over 800 privateers ranged the seas in search of prizes; while 500 privateers saw commission in the War of 1812.

Profit or Patriotism?

Privateers and their investors were usually motivated by both profit and patriotism. There is no doubt that as normal maritime commerce suffered in the face of enemy rovers and naval blockade, American shipping principles scented other opportunities on the wind. Shipping and business interests shifted considerable resources towards outfitting privateers that would pursue and seize their foes maritime wealth. Thus they ensured themselves at least a modicum of prosperity—derived, as it were, from a forced “transfer of ownership.”

At the same time, it was clear that the Grand Experiment that was America required naval power to challenge Britain’s rule of the sea. The privateers who lent much needed strength to the young nation’s naval forces were for the most part aware of this. During both wars, privately owned warships exerted themselves, doing far more than simply race about and snap up merchantmen. Some privateers sank enemy shipping with no thought for financial gain. Many fought pitched battles with enemy warships, despite the fact that their superior sailing characteristics allowed them to run away at will. Trading broadsides with larger, heavier ships was a recipe for wrack and ruin, and says much about where the enthusiasms of captain and crew lay.

Strategic Value

Whatever their motivation, the questions arise: just how effective were the early American privateers? What strategic value did they bring to the wars?

Beyond sinking the occasional warship, the privateer’s strategic value lay in their remarkable success at disrupting enemy shipping. American privateers in the American Revolution are credited with capturing some 600 ships. In the War of 1812, the estimate falls somewhere between 1300 and 2500 vessels. Even a maritime power the size of Great Britain could not long ignore such losses. Indeed, by the end of the War of 1812 Lloyd’s of London was extremely selective in its underwriting, and the shipping interests that could buy insurance were bled white by their enormous premiums.

The success of the privateers was like that of many guerilla campaigns throughout history. Their bold hit-and-run tactics enabled them to challenge Britain’s command of the seas. In the final analysis, there is no doubt the privateer’s daring, resourcefulness, patriotism—and eye for profit—contributed significantly to the survival of the young American Republic.

Reference:

  1. Sechrest, Larry J. 2002. Privateering and National Defense: Naval Warfare for Private Profit. The Independent Institute.
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