The Unlikely Role of Patriot Pirates

Privateers plundered British ships and made fortunes, to boot.

An American privateer seizes a British ship.

An American privateer seizes a British ship.

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None of this detracts from the courage and sacrifice of the Continental Navy. But even the navy's most ardent commander, John Paul Jones, conceded that naval service couldn't compete with privateering's loose discipline, better pay, shorter cruises, and explicit permission to avoid tangling with enemy warships.

Indeed, the privateering industry tapped the same vein of self-interest and comradeship that had led the Colonies to seek independence in the first place. It bolstered the battered wartime economy by supporting shipbuilders as well as legal officials who settled captured prizes. It sparked wild financial speculation and created fortunes that survive to this day.

Some of the investors had already been rich and simply added privateering to their wartime portfolios. But most were lower-class hustlers who bet all on a dicey enterprise and emerged as the new nation's economic elite.

Some waterfront magnates entered the highly profitable slave trade. Many transports sent from New England to Africa to collect slaves for delivery to the American South were former privateer warships or converted prizes. Three fifths of them hailed from Rhode Island, a booming privateer center from the earliest days of the rebellion.

The key factor behind privateering's growth from a New England fad to a trans-Atlantic phenomenon, from small-time to big business, was that its lowliest seamen and richest investors pursued it for the same reason—to make money and whip the British, too. In that regard, it opens a window on Revolutionary society that is instantly recognizable to our modern sensibility, for the enterprise blended capitalism and patriotism, selfishness and public service. It was a difficult balance, whose shifts and moral accommodations constitute a basic theme of American life both in 1776 and today. l

Patton is the author of Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution (Pantheon, 2008).