American Privateers in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic
The establishment of the British North American colonies along the Atlantic coastline in the seventeenth century ensured the central role this dynamic and turbulent ocean would play in America’s economic development. While the colonies derived tremendous commercial benefits from the transatlantic trade, these advantages could quickly evaporate depending on the controversies and conflicts occurring 3,000 miles away in Europe. Britain’s involvement in a series of continental wars during the eighteenth century disrupted maritime commerce, forcing American ship captains, merchants, and seamen to consider alternative ways of remaining at sea. With the British government encouraging its colonial subjects to serve as privateers to supplement the Royal Navy’s strength, war provided additional economic opportunities for America’s seafaring community. During the American Revolution, the maritime community employed its privateering skills to assist the tiny Continental Navy. Once the United States became an independent nation, reconciling the longstanding practices of America’s seafaring citizens with the government’s desire to remain neutral in international affairs and to pursue free trade challenged both groups. Until then, the turbulent Atlantic offered the promise of jobs and adventure, along with an ironclad guarantee of dangers, for anyone seeking a livelihood there.
With their prime location along the Atlantic, the British North American colonies entered the world economy as seafaring communities. Small port cities sprung up along the coast to negotiate the transfer of raw materials from forests and fields into ships headed to Europe and the Caribbean. The exports emerging from these towns reflected what was grown and harvested in the surrounding area. Northern cities like Boston, with a more limited growing season, tended to ship items harvested from its natural environment: fish and whale oil. Colonies to Boston’s south, with more extensive agricultural production, exported their leading commodities such as wheat, pork, and beef from New York City and Philadelphia; tobacco from the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia; and rice and indigo from Charleston, South Carolina. (Cotton would not become a significant southern export until the nineteenth century, following the cotton gin’s invention in 1793.)1
In exchange for these items, finished goods arrived from Europe, raw materials came from the West Indies, and enslaved men, women, and children involuntarily emigrated from Africa through a horrific journey known as the “middle passage.”2 While all thirteen colonies participated in transatlantic commerce to ensure their economic livelihood, northern port cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia provided the shipbuilding and seamen that permitted the American side of this trade to flourish.3
As hubs of America’s maritime trade, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia evolved from tightly knit villages into centers of commercial exchange. Functioning as seafaring “company towns,” these port cities offered inhabitants a wide range of employment options related to the transatlantic trade, most of which did not require leaving the harbor. Before ships and crews could transport goods across the Atlantic, vessels had to be constructed, loaded, and staffed with experienced seamen. Each waterfront city possessed a range of artisans engaged in shipbuilding and repair, including riggers, sailmakers, shipwrights, and coopers. Merchants and ship captains, many of whom co-owned the vessels, regularly and closely worked together to arrange the transport of goods. For those men too young, too old, or too inexperienced to serve on vessels, jobs were available loading and unloading cargo, with very few ships leaving American harbors with empty holds.4 Residents of New England port cities also utilized the shipbuilding services to engage in commercial fishing or whaling operations in northern Atlantic waters.5
The artisans, seamen, and ship captains who made a port city’s maritime economy hum came together in waterfront neighborhoods nicknamed “sailor towns.” Coffeehouses, taverns, boardinghouses, stores, and private homes and tenements fed, housed, and supplied the mariners who entered, departed, and inhabited the port. Taverns played a particularly important role as centers of entertainment, information, and business transactions for ship captains, sailors, and artisans in need of food, drink, lodging, socializing, lines of credit, and job opportunities. New York City and its taverns emerged as the hub of transatlantic information for the North American colonists because it was the port that received the English packet boats carrying news, mail, and gossip.6 In general, these colonial port cities functioned as single-industry maritime communities that thrived during times of peaceful transoceanic trade but struggled to adapt to the disruptive warfare increasingly permeating North Atlantic trade routes.
A vibrant shipping industry could not exist on land alone, and the experienced seamen and ship captains who staffed these vessels provided the essential element to keep America’s transatlantic trade afloat. Most sailors came from port cities (or the surrounding towns), the Atlantic Ocean having been in their sights since boyhood. While some sought adventure, riches, and freedom, many went to sea simply because “it was there,” following family and community traditions.7 Added enticements included wage payments in cash, a rarity at the time, and short stints on the water (ranging from three weeks to three months) combined with long respites onshore.8 Alongside these perks were the physical demands of sailing that made it a young man’s profession, with apprenticeships beginning at the age of twelve or thirteen and retirements occurring in a sailor’s early thirties. John Paul Jones, a naval hero of the American Revolution, embarked on his first transatlantic voyage when he was thirteen, a seemingly youthful age that reflected the maritime norm.9 With ships at the mercy of wind power to travel, too much weather in the form of storms could damage vessels, while too little wind could render a ship vulnerable to attack or incapacitate it and risk spoiling its fragile cargo of raw materials.10 The risks accompanying sailing, including drowning or sinking, as well as the long apprenticeship meant that experienced sailors remained a small but desirable group in America’s transatlantic economy.11 Indeed, their abilities as “able seamen” made them vulnerable to impressment by a British navy in need of skilled men to support its imperial ambitions.12 For those seamen who avoided death or capture at sea, their post-Atlantic retirement brought them home to port cities where they might open a maritime-related business or even return to the sea as ship captains.13
Ship captains occupied a seminal space in North America’s transatlantic economy, serving as the conduits between the coastal merchants, who hired them to ship goods, and as commanders of the seamen who made these journeys possible. Before embarking on a new voyage, experienced sailors enjoyed a certain amount of onshore autonomy due to their cash wages and their skills. Once men signed the “articles of a ship”—a contract establishing wages and rules for the voyage—they relinquished their freedoms to the ship captain. He then became the sailor’s legal guardian and fully controlled the sailor’s work and his physical body, including punishments.14 Commercial ships maintained small crews, typically four to five men, in addition to the captain and the first mate, and the work required to keep a schooner or sloop afloat was hard and constant.15 A ship’s cargo determined its final destination, another decision that resided with the captain rather than the crew. As European warfare increasingly encroached on transatlantic shipping, the ship’s captains and its owners might choose to profit from these tensions through the legal practice of privateering.
As Britain’s economic influence and political power increased in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, rivals sought to challenge its emerging hegemony on the European continent, in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, and in North America. Further intensifying these conflicts was the concept of mercantilism, which provided the accelerant needed to fuel a succession of fiercely competitive European trade wars at this time. Mercantilism posited that the world contained a limited amount of wealth, with warfare offering the pathway to controlling more of it.16 With the expansion of empires beyond Europe, the raw materials transported in the Atlantic trade provided a convenient target to increase a nation’s riches and its political standing. In the seventeenth century, Britain engaged in a series of “blue water” (or oceanic) trading wars with the Dutch Republic, and by the eighteenth century, France’s growing commercial presence in the Atlantic and Caribbean made that nation Britain’s chief maritime rival and antagonist.17 These imperial and economic wars, disrupting the Atlantic trade, transformed the relationship between seafaring North American colonists and their mother country, Britain.
Originating in twelfth-century Europe, “privateering” referred to the legally sanctioned practice of seizing enemy ships, including their crews and cargoes, during times of war. Unlike its illegitimate sibling “piracy,” privateering possessed the legal backing of the state. (In fact, privateersmen resented being associated with the unsavory world of piracy, a practice that had largely ended by the 1730s.)18 Nations issued “letters of marque” or “commissions” to ship captains authorizing them to engage in this practice. In Britain, where the High Court of the Admiralty enforced and regulated privateering, ship captains were also required to post surety bonds as a guarantee that they would obey British maritime laws and regulations once they left port. When an authorized privateer captured an enemy vessel, that “prize” would be transported to the nearest British admiralty court to be “condemned,” that is, redeemed for money. If the court determined that the prize had been legally obtained, including belonging to Britain’s enemy, the privateer would receive a portion of the ship’s value and would return to the Atlantic to attempt additional captures.19 Other European nations that engaged in privateering followed a process similar to Britain’s. In France, consuls, stationed in busy ports, issued letters of marque and adjudicated the prize claims of their nation’s privateers, known as “corsairs.”20
Privateering proved to be a “win-win” situation for warring states and their maritime subjects, although less so for neutral nations. Prior to the eighteenth century, most nations had small or nonexistent navies.21 Privateering, essentially “privatized warfare,” gave European countries greater coverage over Atlantic shipping lanes without the cost and logistical challenges of launching a state-supported navy. Also engaging in privateering were the English and Dutch East India Companies, which preemptively attacked hostile ships to prevent the seizure of their own valuable shipments.22 With warring nation’s embracing the mercantilist concept of limited wealth, seizing an enemy’s cargo deprived it of valuable supplies while enriching the privateer and the state, which split the proceeds of the condemned prize.23 Many ship captains invested these windfalls into profitable trading companies of their own.24 The financial benefits associated with privateering helped balance its dangers, including the capture of one’s ship, the impressment of sailors, or even death.25 Privateering remained popular into the nineteenth century, when signatories to the Congress of Paris (which did not include the United States) finally agreed to ban this practice in 1856 in the aftermath of the Crimean War (1853–56).26
Adding to the intensity and aggressiveness of privateering was a collection of maritime rules and laws emanating from medieval Europe known as the Consolato del mare (“the code of sea laws”).27 Originating in thirteenth-century Spain and first practiced on the Mediterranean, this compendium contained the provision that a ship’s cargo, not its flag or its registry, determined its wartime affiliation.28 Under these guidelines, for example, France’s enemies could seize a neutral Portuguese ship carrying French cargo because these items could be used to support France’s war effort. While neutral cargo on either warring or peaceful ships was not subject to seizure, privateers considered neutral vessels fair game as potential carriers of enemy goods. The Consolato del mare became expressed in diplomatic agreements as “enemy goods make enemy ships”; its converse was the phrase “free ships make free goods,” with the exception of contraband used for war, such as gunpowder and weapons. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, Britain and France increasingly embraced the notion of freedom of shipping, at least diplomatically, although what happened to neutral vessels in open waters remained another matter.29
Enlightenment ideas on free trade brought temporary relief to those European nations hoping to pursue maritime commerce without combat. The recognition of neutral rights made its first diplomatic appearance in 1650, with the insertion of the phrase “free ships make free goods” in a treaty between Holland and Spain.30 Longtime combatants France and Britain abandoned the Consolato del mare in several seventeenth-century treaties and then reaffirmed this stance in the influential Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, declaring “that free ships shall also give a freedom to goods,” except for specifically defined contraband.31 This change in policy offered relief to Portugal, the Netherlands, and other smaller nations, who hoped to maintain friendly commercial relations with all nations but whose ships had been vulnerable to wartime seizure. This free-trade détente would come to an abrupt end in the 1750s, when the global Seven Years’ War triggered the resumption of Anglo-French fighting. Due to wartime exigencies, Britain and France returned to the aggressive practice of attacking any ship and seizing any cargo it perceived as aiding its enemy, regardless of a vessel’s nationality or its captain’s desire for neutrality.32 While a diplomatic precedent for honoring neutrality had been established, powerful nations such as Britain and France still controlled maritime rules through treaties and warfare.
Privateering originally spread to the North American side of the Atlantic in the aftermath of Columbus’s successful journey in 1492 and emerged as a legitimate and enduring way to negotiate economic and imperial power in this vast, lucrative, and contested ocean. Although England staked its territorial claim in the Americas later than Spain or Portugal, its ship captains and explorers such as Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake wasted no time in embracing transatlantic privateering during the sixteenth century.33 English privateers attacked Spanish ships carrying valuable cargoes of gold and silver, enriching themselves and their patron, Queen Elizabeth I.34 As England became a wealthier and more powerful nation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it found itself increasingly fighting wars to defend its position and to expand into new markets.35 In need of naval reinforcements to harass its Spanish, Dutch, and (most importantly) French enemies, the British government looked to the maritime inhabitants of its North American colonies.36
Prior to 1689, most North American warfare occurred largely on land and involved territorial disputes between English colonists and Native American nations. While some colonists had engaged in wartime privateering in the seventeenth century, this practice had occurred on a small scale, with the British government and some colonies occasionally issuing commissions to ship captains.37 During the early rounds of European warfare—the Nine Years’ War (1688–97) and the War of Spanish Succession (1702–13)—the North American maritime economy experienced more disruptions than benefits.38 Following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the seafaring colonists enjoyed a twenty-six-year hiatus from Anglo-French hostilities. During this period, North American port cities grew into vibrant maritime communities without the disturbances and damages associated with warfare. In 1739, when hostilities resumed, the British government discovered an untapped pool of ship captains and sailors who could support its imperial ambitions as privateers.39
The War of Jenkins’s Ear, beginning in 1739, marked the North American colonists’ full-scale immersion into British privateering.40 This conflict concerned Britain’s desire to access the Spanish-controlled Caribbean trade, and North America’s vibrant maritime communities proved ideally situated to support these ambitions.41 Aspiring American privateers followed the same procedures established in England, with colonial governors deputized as vice admirals and placed in charge of their own admiralty courts. These vice-admiralty courts, operating in eleven colonies since 1689, had the authority to issue letters of marque to American ship captains, collect surety bonds, and condemn any prizes that American privateers might bring to port.42 Not surprisingly, the cities with the most active maritime communities also hosted the busiest vice-admiralty courts: Boston, Newport, New York City, Philadelphia, and Charleston.43 Privateering’s influence on these ports could also be seen in the growing importance of taverns as informal spaces for these transactions to occur. British officials and naval officers relaxed in these establishments, where some of the work involved in enlisting privateers—recruiting ships, raising crews, inspecting ship articles, and auctioning prize ships and cargoes—also took place.44 During the transatlantic warfare of the eighteenth century, privateering provided a way for Britain’s seafaring subjects to stay in business, and to even profit, from these conflicts.45
The colonial privateering boom that began in the 1740s lifted the economic fortunes of North American port cities, at least as long as the wars lasted.46 Unlike peaceful merchant ships, privateers required larger crews to function and also needed to be faster and armed. Both of these changes resulted in increased employment for artisans, who built new ships and transformed existing ones, and for seamen, who served on them. Port-city artisans such as shipwrights, blacksmiths, sailmakers, mast makers, and caulkers added gunsmiths to their ranks in order to retrofit and construct larger and faster warships capable of outrunning and capturing enemy vessels.47 The privateering boom resulted in 164 ships being constructed in Boston in 1741 alone, compared with an annual peacetime total of about 40–50 ships in the late 1730s.48 A well-armed privateer required 100 seamen to function, in contrast to the 5–10 sailors needed on a merchant ship. With more ships needing larger crews to perform its military functions, demand increased for seamen in the 1740s.49 Between 1750 and 1850, wartime demand raised pay as high as fifty dollars a month, with peacetime reducing this amount to four dollars.50 While seamen might also receive a share of the prize money for a captured ship, the amount would be small or nonexistent. Instead, steady employment and higher wages provided the real reward for sailors who served on privateers.51 The overall rise in wages and demand for workers benefited port-city businesses, particularly taverns, because artisans, ship captains, and sailors would have more money to spend on “drinking, gambling, whoring, and carousing.”52
Ship captains enjoyed the most immediate rewards of privateering by splitting a larger share of the captured goods with the British government. This practice encouraged risky behavior—the more ships they seized, the wealthier these captains became. Merchants also benefited from privateering as war contractors. Thomas Hancock, uncle of John Hancock (whose prominent signature adorns the Declaration of Independence), reconfigured a vigorous trading business into an even more successful privateering enterprise by sending ships out to claim prizes and by supplying military expeditions. These wartime activities yielded the elder Hancock wartime profits of 12,000 pounds sterling, making him one of the wealthiest men in Boston.53
The symbiotic relationship between Britain’s imperial ambitions and colonial Americans’ willingness to serve as privateers reached its pinnacle in size, scope, and autonomy during the global Seven Years’ War, which began in the North American frontier in 1754 and expanded to the Atlantic, Europe, India, and the Caribbean.54 Soon after the war’s North American start, colonial governors issued letters of marque to American ship captains to encourage privateering against French (and later Spanish) ships in the lucrative West Indian trade.55 Recognizing the important role neutral countries played in transporting French colonial commerce out of the West Indies, Britain established the “Rule of 1756” to deny free-trade status to noncombatants such as the Netherlands.56
With Britain and France now abandoning their earlier understanding that “free ships make free goods,” the number of potential prizes multiplied.57 As a result, the legal privateering and illegal trading that accompanied this war produced another economic boom in American port cities, particularly in New York and Philadelphia, with seamen and shipbuilding in high demand.58 Young men flocked to the coastal cities to work in the maritime trades, and the increased need for sailors resulted in wage increases. As many as 10,000 men served on privateers from Newport, Rhode Island, with another 3,000 men coming from New York City.59 American ship captains proved so effective at seizing French naval ships that by 1759 none remained to be captured.60
Despite the economic lift privateering offered, dangers still persisted, such as capture by enemy ships, economic downturns, and the risks of a crew’s impressment. In response, American colonists employed a variety of strategies onshore and at sea to cope with these challenges. Although privateers possessed the legal backing of the state, these vessels entered legally murky waters once they began attacking and capturing enemy ships. Even the most law-abiding captain quickly adapted to the realities of life on the sea to ensure a vessel’s survival and its success, regardless of the legal promises he had made in port.61 The experiences of Captain George Walker, a British privateer during King George’s War (1744–48) and its European counterpart, the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48), demonstrated the excitement and uncertainty involved in raiding enemy ships. Initially assigned to transport cargo from South Carolina, Walker spent four months in 1740 pursuing two Spanish privateers that had docked on the Carolina coast. His efforts resulted in the successful retrieval of a captured British vessel, the Neptune. His next mission took him to Barbados, where his ship sprung a leak and sunk. He waited over a year in the Caribbean before British officials entrusted him with a new vessel to command. Even during a string of successful privateering campaigns that resulted in prize money amounting to 220,000 pounds sterling, Walker had to contend with a mutiny among his crew.62
Aside from the personal risks and physical challenges involved in privateering, episodic European wars resulted in “boom and bust” cycles in maritime cities, teaching savvy ship captains to place profit before patriotism to stay in business.63 Many embraced trading opportunities with Britain’s Spanish and French opponents in neutral Caribbean waters.64 At sea, ship captains disguised themselves as “neutrals” through fabricated paperwork and the hoisting of “unthreatening” flags in the hopes of escaping capture.65 In port they might bribe or threaten British customhouse officials to avoid punishment or seek to exploit the inconsistent enforcement of laws in the various colonial vice-admiralty courts.66 And when all else failed, American ship captains sought to outrun other privateers to avoid the long and expensive ordeal of being captured and held in port.67 The willingness of these captains to defy British laws in favor of maritime profits made disregarding government authority an acceptable business practice in the eighteenth-century Atlantic.68
No group was more susceptible to the lawlessness of the open water than the “able seamen,” whose highly demanded skills made them vulnerable to impressment by British naval ships. American sailors, desirous of controlling their labor and their wages, employed numerous strategies to avoid capture, including “hiding, running (or swimming), wearing disguises, pretending to be employed in another occupation, deserting to another ship, or jumping overboard.”69 Amid these small and individual acts of resistance, colonial waterfront communities, which depended on skilled sailors and unencumbered shipping for their survival, responded en masse to particularly aggressive or egregious examples of impressment. Such was the case in Boston’s Knowles Riot of 1747. British commodore Charles Knowles and his crew brazenly impressed forty-seven men from the city’s harbor, including an outbound ship’s entire crew, as well as several waterfront apprentices. In response, Bostonians rioted for three days, burnt a barge, and took several of Knowles’s crewmembers hostage until the commodore agreed to release most of the impressed men.70 Additional press riots occurred in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1757 and in New York City, where three occurred in 1760 alone.71 The vibrant Atlantic trade offered both opportunities and risks, and American maritime communities embraced acts both small and large, legal and illegal, to protect their livelihood in these turbulent waters.
In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, tightly knit port cities rallied together to protest the onerous taxes and duties the British government attempted to impose. Even before the 1760s, American colonists had taken a lax approach to complying with British trade laws and regarded those royal custom officials who attempted to enforce them with disdain.72 With the introduction of a series of postwar revenue measures intended to offset the cost of the recent fighting, colonists devised new strategies to elude British officials. Waterfront residents in Boston and elsewhere took to loading and unloading their ships at night to avoid paying duties, while smuggling became widespread throughout the colonies.73 Regarding these revenue measures as a threat to their economic survival, maritime communities publicly punished those who too eagerly complied with these British laws by tarring and feathering captains and burning their boats.74 While the Boston Tea Party of 1773 stands as the most famous example of these waterfront protests, it represented just one of many throughout the colonies, each of which showed the interdependence and coordination among port-city residents who relied on the Atlantic trade for their survival.
These waterfront protests, of course, contributed to the outbreak of the American Revolution, which itself provided an opportunity for interested ship captains and able seamen to apply their maritime talents to the cause of American independence. Decades of privateering had prepared ship captains for this latest round of warfare, and northern states quickly authorized this practice to protect maritime commerce. The trade-dependent state of Massachusetts led the way on November 1, 1775, when its legislature passed “An Act for Encouraging the Fixing out of Armed Vessels to defend the Sea Coast of America, and for erecting a court to try and condemn all vessels that shall be found infesting the same.”75 The Continental Congress (the national government during the Revolutionary War) followed suit in December 1775 when it established the Continental Navy by purchasing and converting frigates into warships. When Britain issued the Prohibitory Act in December 1775, which banned all trade with the rebellious American colonies, Congress was forced to take more aggressive actions to protect American shipping. On March 23, 1776, delegates approved authorizing privateers but envisioned them as a water-based militia, delegating the implementation of this program to the participating states. During the war, Congress authorized an estimated 2,000 letters of marque, but the individual states assumed the responsibility for issuing commissions and collecting the $5,000 (in continental dollars) for surety bonds from ship captains.76 States also established their own admiralty courts to deal with captured prizes, including “condemning” the vessel and its cargo.77 Eventually joining Massachusetts in sanctioning privateers were other states with strong maritime economies: New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia.78
The resulting American naval presence consisted of the Continental Navy, with 57 vessels, supplemented by 2,000–3,000 state-sponsored privateers employing approximately 200,000 sailors.79 Just as an earlier generation of colonial ship captains had harassed Britain’s enemies to undercut their ability to fight, revolutionary privateers now employed these tactics against British commercial ships. Most of the seizures occurred in the Atlantic’s open waters near the busy (and British-occupied) port cities of New York and Philadelphia.80 The success of American privateers in capturing enemy commercial ships demonstrated that financial rewards continued to be an essential motivation, even amid revolutionary sentiment. For example, the British insurer Lloyd’s of London estimated that American privateers seized about 2,200 British vessels during the war, with Massachusetts alone claiming 1,200 ships.81 Privateering, already a longstanding colonial practice, became embedded in America’s struggle for independence, sanctioned by the newly established state and national governments.
While numerous American seamen supported revolutionary politics through the Sons of Neptune, the water-based counterpart to the Sons of Liberty, many served on privateers, motivated as much by self-interest as patriotism.82 Despite the risk of impressment or capture, privateering offered many advantages over enlisting in the Continental Army, including a shorter term of service and the possibility of enrichment. A broadside from the port city of Beverly, Massachusetts, declared: “Any seamen or landmen that have an inclination to make their fortunes in a few months, may have an opportunity” by applying to serve on the brigantine Washington.83 Many Continental soldiers finished their military service and joined British and American privateers, lured by pay advances of up to $100.84 In addition, sailors from the French and British navies deserted during the war in hopes of serving on more lucrative and less authoritarian American merchant ships.85 Even as many Americans fought to become an independent nation, the lure of riches often trumped patriotism for those who made their living on the Atlantic.86
Despite the relative advantages associated with privateering, ships continued to encounter significant risks once they reached the open waters of the Atlantic. The wartime experiences of Captain Christopher Prince of New London, Connecticut, best illustrate the opportunities and perils associated with privateering. From 1777 to 1783, Prince captained at least seven American privateers, sailed repeatedly into lucrative Caribbean waters, and successfully acquired several enemy prizes. The British captured him in 1779 and again in 1782, holding the captain for several months in a London prison until his eventual release.87 Less fortunate than Prince was American seaman Nathaniel Fanning, who embarked on the American privateer Angelica, “a new vessel, mounting sixteen carriage guns, and carrying 98 men and boys, on a six month cruise.” Within weeks of his departure, a British ship seized Fanning and his fellow crewmembers, installing them on a British privateer. Subsequently captured by the French, Fanning became a lieutenant in their navy before eventually returning home to New York.88 Another American, Thomas Painter, briefly served on a privateer, but the British caught him and placed him on a prison ship. He escaped by jumping overboard and swimming to safety in New York harbor. This experience soured Painter on a career as a privateersman: “I came to the conclusion, that privateering, was nothing better than Highway Robbery under the protection of law.”89
Reflecting the ubiquity of eighteenth-century American privateering, even George Washington participated in a practice he would eventually attempt to curtail. Upon his arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to assume command of the Continental Army, Washington realized British ships could sail into Boston’s harbor with little resistance. Tapping into the experienced maritime communities of Gloucester, Marblehead, and Plymouth, he organized a flotilla of six privateering vessels to patrol the entire Massachusetts coastline, from Cape Ann to Cape Cod, in order to intercept enemy supply ships coming from Canada and across the Atlantic. From 1775 to 1777, Washington’s so-called “navy” captured fifty-five British vessels.90 Privately, he also owned a share of one privateer, aptly named the General Washington, with his twenty-two-year-old stepson, John Parke Custis, and two other men, including his distant cousin Lund Washington.91 As president, Washington would attempt to prevent Americans from serving as privateers for warring nations. But his own earlier involvement, however small that enterprise might have been, demonstrated how deeply embedded privateering was in the Atlantic economy.
During the eighteenth century, North America’s maritime communities became immersed in the practice of privateering, both as British colonists and as American revolutionaries. The prospect of independence, however, offered Americans the possibility of engaging in the transatlantic trade without the burden of its previous colonial obligations. Britain’s imperial rivalries would no longer concern the newly independent American nation (or at least that was the hope). Instead, the United States could assume an international role that better reflected its status as a young and relatively weak country.
For eighteenth-century Americans, the Atlantic provided an essential economic lifeline in a watery environment teeming with personal risks. Working on the sea not only could bring a sailor adventure and wealth but also could result in drowning, sinking, disease, or capture. Nearly constant warfare between America’s mother country, Great Britain, and its European enemies magnified the promises and the perils of the eighteenth-century Atlantic. During the colonial period, residents of American port cities embraced privateering as a way to survive in a maritime economy often defined by war. Privateering emerged as a widespread and acceptable practice ingrained not only in ship captains and seamen but also in trade-dependent coastal communities. As America contemplated a future free from British laws, obligations, and expectations, the opportunity to trade freely without the burdens of imperial rivalries and wartime exigencies emerged as a priority. But as the United States embraced its political independence, would its maritime citizens be willing to abandon the familiar economic practices from the colonial period and to pursue neutral commerce as newly minted U.S. citizens? Reconciling the longstanding American practice of privateering with the national government’s desire to remain neutral and pursue free trade significantly challenged the new government as it exercised its authority over its sovereign citizens.
While the Continental Congress endorsed privateering as a wartime necessity, this governing body also envisioned a postrevolutionary world of peaceful Atlantic commerce when it proposed the Plan of Treaties (or Model Treaty) in 1776. John Adams, a congressional delegate from the maritime-dependent state of Massachusetts, drafted this document for the committee charged with establishing diplomatic relations and military alliances with Europe.92 Inspired by Enlightenment ideas, he incorporated the concept that “free ships make free goods” into the Model Treaty. Adams envisioned the newly independent United States enjoying peaceful relations and free trade with other nations. As a neutral nation uninvolved in warfare, the United States would not need to engage in privateering or worry about warring states seizing its ships or blockading its ports. Congress’s two-handed approach of authorizing privateering and endorsing the Model Treaty illustrated America’s idealistic vision of its future clashing with the commercial and military realities of not only winning the American Revolution but also doing business on the Atlantic.