privateersmen and profit -- 3/6/23

Today's selection -- from Rebels at Sea by Eric Jay Dolin. The privateers who helped America win its Revolution were motivated by profit as much as by patriotism -- but, then, so were most combatants:
"[In 1778 George Washington wrote], 'Men may speculate as they will -- they may talk of patriotism -- they may draw a few examples from ancient story of great achievements performed by its influence; but whoever builds upon it, as a sufficient basis, for conducting a long and bloody war, will find themselves deceived in the end. We must take the passions of men, as nature has given them, and those principles as a guide, which are generally the rule of action. I do not mean to exclude altogether the idea of patriotism. I know it exists, and I know it has done much in the present contest. But I will venture to assert, that a great and lasting war can never be supported on this principle alone -- It must be aided by a prospect of interest or some reward. For a time it may, of itself, push men to action – to bear much – to encounter difficulties; but it will not endure unassisted by interest.'

George Washington, the 1796 Athenaeum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

"At another time, Washington observed that the men ‘who act upon prin­ciples of disinterestedness [civic virtue], are, comparatively speaking -- no more than a drop in the ocean.

"Taking this broader view, privateersmen weren't so different from their [official armed forces] peers. If one wants to impugn the motives of the former, one must also be ready to impugn those of the latter. A kinder and, arguably, fairer way to understand what drove men to engage in privateering is to accept that the pursuit of money and the pursuit of patriotism don't have to be at odds with one another. Yes, it is true that all privateers, as well as own­ers and those who invested in them, were driven by money; and certainly, many of them had that as their sole motivation. After all, the merchants who sponsored privateering vessels were businessmen, and privateering definitely was a business venture. The men who sailed on privateers had the welfare of themselves and often their families to consider, and that made it imperative that they try to generate income as best they could. Although many cruises came up empty, enough succeeded to keep the promise of profit alive. But it is equally true that many privateer owners, investors, officers, and crew also believed in the revolutionary cause and were indeed patriots who had the public interest in mind -- or at least their interest in being part of an independent country no longer shackled by the constraints of a distant controlling power. Who knows how many pri­vateer owners and privateersmen were moved by patriotic impulses, but t percentage was surely in line with the levels of patriotism prevalent in the society at large.
"The question of patriotism versus greed is complicated by the risks privateers were taking. Benjamin Franklin reportedly said, upon sign­ing the Declaration of Independence, ‘We must all hang together gentle­men, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.’ The comment may be apocryphal, but even if Franklin never uttered these words, they ring true. Patriots' lives were in the balance, whether they were captured by the British during the war or seized after, should lose. Privateersmen faced an additional danger. The British government viewed them as pirates, and, as such, they could legally be hanged.  Although they were often threatened with such treatment, those threats were not carried out. Nevertheless, the British government despised privateersmen and threw them into prisons where horrific conditions killed many thousands. Thus capture could be a death sentence. And if the war had been lost, privateersmen and shipowners might have been pursued and jailed, or worse, because of their traitorous behavior. Of course, privateersmen put their lives at risk every time they set sail. Engagements with the enemy were often deadly, and there was also the inherent uncertainty of being on the ocean; more than a few privateers foundered or were lost without a trace. Given all of the hazards involved, it is hard to imagine that money alone could have been reason enough for every privateersman to take up the fight. Some, and most likely a considerable number, must have been moved to action by patriotism as well."



Eric Jay Dolin


Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution




Copyright May 31, 2022


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