Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
PRIVATEERING is the act or the employment of attacking and seizing vessels or other property belonging to an enemy, at sea, by means of privateers—Privateers are armed vessels that are owned, equipped and officered by one or more private persons, but sailing under a commission, usually called letters of marque, from a belligerent state, which empowers the person or persons to whom it is granted to attack and seize, at sea, vessels or other property of its enemy.
—The right to use such vessels in maritime war is recognized by international law; their employment was necessary till states established permanent public navies; their use since that time has been claimed to be advantageous to states having small navies, because it enables them to increase their naval force in a short time, and at a small cost, and thus tends to prevent a state, with a powerful navy, from having an undue advantage over another state whose marine is mainly commercial.
—The disadvantages of using privateers are, that, their services being obtained by allowing their owners to appropriate to themselves and to their crews the whole or a part of the vessels or other property they may capture, and their officers and crews not being under naval discipline, the desire of prize tends to lead both officers and crews beyond the limits of legitimate war, to produce disregard of the rights of neutrals, and to continue lawlessness after the return of peace.
—These evils, the rapid growth of neutral interests, and the increasing difficulty of fitting out vessels, by private means, suited to the conditions of modern maritime war, have led, during the past century, to repeated efforts to abolish privateering. In 1785 a treaty between the United States and Prussia, negotiated by Franklin, bound the contracting states, in case hostilities arose between them, not to use privateers. In 1792 the French assembly agreed to suppress privateering, but without effect. In 1823 the United States unsuccessfully tried to secure the same object by treaties with Great Britain, France and Russia. In the Mexican war the United States issued no letters of marque, and although Mexico issued such letters, they were not taken by foreigners, because municipal laws or treaties forbade. In the Crimean war neither of the belligerents issued letters of marque. At the close of this war the principal states of Europe, uniting in the belief that private armed ships, maintained at private cost for private gain, and often necessarily for a long time beyond the reach of the regular naval force of the state, could not be kept under proper control, signed the declaration of Paris (April 16, 1856), the first article of which reads: "Privateering is and remains abolished." Since that time all the important states in Europe and the Americas have become signataries of the declaration of Paris, except the United States, Spain and Mexico. This declaration binds only its signataries when at war with each other, and leaves them free to use privateers when at war with other states.
—The refusal of the United States to sign the declaration of Paris, which secured to its signataries privileges which it had been the traditional policy of the United States to obtain, was due to a change in the attitude of the government since 1823, and a belief that the United States, with its large commercial marine, might be unable to adequately protect itself against belligerent states with powerful navies, without the aid of privateers. The United States, however, agreed to become a party to the declaration if its signataries would amend it by adding a provision protecting from capture all private property at sea, not contraband. This proposition, called the "Marcy" or "American" amendment, not being accepted by the signataries, was withdrawn in 1857.
—In 1861, Great Britain unsuccessfully sought to induce the confederate government to accede to the declaration of Paris. The United States thereupon offered to accede unconditionally to the declaration of Paris, hoping thereby to obtain an international right to treat confederate privateers as pirates. Great Britain, having accorded the character of belligerents to the confederates, had practically recognized their right to employ privateers, and the offer of the United States was declined unless the United States would admit that its signature should not have "any bearing, direct or indirect, on the internal differences (now) prevailing in the United States." This attempted restriction by one state of a declaration of so general and permanent a character, and to which so many states were parties, was not acceptable to the United States, and its accession to the declaration of Paris has not yet been made. The confederate states having offered letters of marque to subjects of all countries, the congress of the United States authorized the president to issue letters of marque, but, as nearly all the maritime powers had warned their subjects, that, if they served in privateers in the war, their governments would not interfere to protect them, and as the United States had threatened to treat such persons as pirates, no avowedly foreign private armed vessels took letters of marque (from the confederate government), and the ostensibly confederate vessels were commissioned as of its regular navy; and the president of United States did not make use of his power to issue letters of marque.
—During the Franco-German war, in 1870, a royal decree of Prussia ordered the creation of a volunteer navy. The owners of vessels were invited to fit them out for attack on French ships of war; bounties were offered; the crews were to be under naval discipline, but they were to be furnished by the owners of the ships; the officers were not be regular naval officers. The French government protested against the use of such a volunteer navy as an evasion of the engagement not to employ privateers, by which Prussia was bound by the declaration of Paris. The sole real difference discoverable between privateers and such a volunteer navy is, that the latter is under naval discipline.
—In war all captives vest originally in the state, and the commission which alone gives privateersmen a legal interest in a valid prize must be kept on board of their vessel. Sailing under a commission from each of two belligerent states is piratical acting under two or more commissions granted by allied states against a common enemy is irregular, but not piratical. The persons to whom, whether aliens or citizens, and the conditions upon which, states issue letters of marque, vary with their municipal laws. Persons applying for such letters are usually required to give large bonds that they will conform to the usages of war, obey the instructions of the granting state, observe the rights of neutrals, and bring into port, except in cases of overwhelming necessity, all captures for adjudication by a prize court.
—Where, as in the United States, no positive municipal law exists upon the subject, the general rule is, that the owners and officers of privateers are liable in damages for illegal conduct, when admittedly engaged in privateering beyond the amount of security given, and that the measures of damages is the value of the property unlawfully injured or destroyed.
—Treaties of varying duration have been made, and some of them by the United States, with France, Holland, Sweden, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain, and Colombia, which forbid the citizens or subjects of either contracting state, while they are at peace, to accept letters of marque from a third state, at war with the other contracting state. Municipal laws often prohibit the citizens or subjects over whom they are set from taking privateering commissions from a foreign state. Thus, the laws of both Great Britain and the United States impose severe penalties on citizens or residents who accept commissions, equip privateers or enlist men for service in any foreign war. See Wheaton's International Law, 8th ed., by Dans, sec. 358, and note; Kent's Commentaries, 12th ed., vol. i., pp. 98-102; Woolsey's International Law, secs. 127-130; Twiss' Law of Nations (Time of War), chap. 10; Hall's International Law, pp. 453-456; Journal of social science, No. 10, 1879, art. "United States and the Declaration of Paris," by T. S. Woolsey; British Foreign Enlistment Act, 1870; Revised Statutes of the United States, title 67.
JAMES FAIRBANKS COLBY.
Return to top