The Role of American Privateers in the War of 1812

American Privateers

Private ships with a government license to capture or sink enemy vessels played a crucial role in the War of 1812 against Great Britain.

On June 18, 1812, the United States Congress formally declared war against Great Britain. The causes of the war were many, but chief among the American complaints was the practice of the British navy of boarding American ships on the high seas, in search of goods being smuggled into or out of its enemy, Napoleonic France, and also in search of British deserters – or even American sailors it could claim were British deserters.

Letters of Marque and Reprisal

Although the War of 1812 was fought at least as much at sea as on land, when the war began the United States navy consisted of only eight seaworthy ships. Enter the privateers – privately owned and operated vessels that supplemented the navy for the duration of the war, just as they had during the Revolution a generation earlier. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress not only the power to declare war, but also the power to grant “letters of marque and reprisal” – in effect, government permits allowing a private ship the legal right to attack enemy vessels. That permit marked the difference between a privateer and a pirate.

The Rights and Responsibilities of a Privateer

A privateer could legally capture, and even sink, an enemy ship, whether military or merchant. If the ship were captured, however (the preferable option, since it was the cargo that was the reason for the capture), the privateer was legally obligated to bring the ship to the nearest friendly port and to keep its cargo undisturbed until a court could rule on the case. The court would decide if the ship had been lawfully captured: if not, then it would be returned to its owner with restitution paid; if so, then the cargo would be “condemned” and the cargo and/or any proceeds from its sale would go to the privateer and his crew. Note that although there was not yet an “income tax” in America, any revenue or goods brought back into the country were subject to an import duty.

The Decline of Privateering

The War of 1812 marked the end of large-scale privateering. There were a few privateers active in the Civil War and in the Latin American wars of independence; but the practice was made illegal in most countries by the Declaration of Paris in 1856. Privateering declined mainly because governments found it a more difficult resource to control than a standing military force: it required an enormous legal and administrative structure to insure that it actually benefited the aims of the government that created it, rather than simply adding to a few individuals’ fortunes. Also, as weapons became more elaborate and more destructive, it became undesirable to allow them in private hands.

It can be argued that the increasing use of private mercenary armies in recent years is a resurgence of privateering. But others make a distinction between the current “outsourcing” of military functions and the former “privatization” of those functions which characterized privateering. Ultimately, the distinction is made on the basis of who is in control – a government acting on behalf of its citizens, or those citizens acting as individuals.


  1. Tabarrok, Alexander. The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Privateers. Independent Review 11(4) 2007:565+. Expanded Academic ASAP