Privateers in the War of 1812

U.S. Constitution Allowed Merchant Captains to Attack Enemy Ships

Pride of Baltimore II, replica of Baltimore clipper
The Pride of Baltimore II, a modern replica of a Baltimore clipper.

Bejamin Roffelsen/Getty Images

Privateers were captains of merchant ships legally sanctioned to attack and capture ships of enemy nations.

American privateers had played a useful role in the American Revolution, attacking British ships. And when the United States Constitution was drafted it contained a provision for the federal government to authorize privateers.

In the War of 1812, American privateers played a major role, as armed merchant ships sailing from American ports attacked, seized, or destroyed a great many British merchant ships. The American privateers actually did much more damage to British shipping than the U.S. Navy, which was greatly outnumbered and outgunned by Britain's Royal Navy.

Some American privateer captains became heroes during the War of 1812, and their exploits were celebrated in American newspapers. 

Privateers sailing from Baltimore, Maryland were especially aggravating to the British. London newspapers denounced Baltimore as a "nest of pirates." The most significant of the Baltimore privateers was Joshua Barney, a naval hero of the Revolutionary War who volunteered to serve in the summer of 1812 and was commissioned as a privateer by President James Madison.

Barney was immediately successful at raiding British ships on the open ocean and received press attention. The Columbian, a New York City newspaper, reported on the results of one of his raiding voyages in the issue of August 25, 1812:

"Arrived at Boston the English brig William, from Bristol (England) for St. Johns, with 150 tons of coal, &; a prize to the privateer Rossie, commodore Barney, who had also captured and destroyed 11 other British vessels, and captured the ship Kitty from Glasgow, of 400 tons and ordered her for the first port."

The British naval and land attack on Baltimore in September 1814 was, at least in part, intended to punish the city for its connection to privateers.

Following the burning of Washington, D.C., British plans to burn Baltimore were thwarted, and the American defense of the city was immortalized by Francis Scott Key, an eyewitness, in "The Star-Spangled Banner."

History of Privateers

By the dawn of the 19th century, the history of privateering stretched back at least 500 years. The major European powers had all employed privateers to prey upon the shipping of enemies in various conflicts.

The official commissions which governments gave to authorize ships to operate as privateers were generally known as "letters of marque."

During the American Revolution, state governments, as well as the Continental Congress, issued letters of marque to authorize privateers to seize British merchant ships. And British privateers likewise preyed upon American ships.

In the late 1700s, ships of the East India Company sailing in the Indian Ocean were known to have been issued letters of marque and preyed upon French vessels. And during the Napoleonic Wars, the French government issued letters of marque to ships, sometimes manned by American crews, which preyed upon British shipping.

Constitutional Basis for Letters of Marque

The use of privateers was considered an important, if not essential, part of naval warfare in the late 1700s when the United States Constitution was written.

And the legal basis for privateers was included in the Constitution, in Article I, Section 8. That section, which includes a lengthy list of Congressional powers, includes: "To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water."

The use of letters of marque was specifically mentioned in the Declaration of War signed by President James Madison and dated June 18, 1812:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That war be and is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories; and the President of the United States is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the United States, to carry the same into effect, and to issue private armed vessels of the United States commissions or letters of marque and general reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper, and under the seal of the United States, against the vessels, goods, and effects of the government of the said United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the subjects thereof.

Recognizing the importance of privateers, President Madison personally signed each commission. Anyone seeking a commission had to apply to the secretary of state and submit information about the ship and its crew.

The official paperwork, the letter of marque, was extremely important. If a ship was captured on the high seas by an enemy ship and could produce an official commission, it would be treated as a combatant vessel and the crew would be treated as prisoners of war.

Without the letter of marque, the crew could be treated as ordinary pirates and hanged.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "Privateers in the War of 1812." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Privateers in the War of 1812. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Privateers in the War of 1812." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).