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Chapter 22

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The American Privateers

Donald Barr Chidsey

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 24
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p141  23[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]In Bad Repute

At the end of the War of 1812, the end also of the Napoleonic wars and the coming of peace almost everywhere, the world felt that privateering had had its day. There was something old‑fashioned about it, something almost medieval. For all the regulations, the posting of bonds, the scrupulous care of prisoners, an air of disrepute still clung to it.

Those who argued in favor of privateering pointed out that it harassed the enemy at the expense of private persons rather than of the government. Its opponents answered that the government was ultimately responsible and had been forced, both here and abroad, to give the privateers subsidies or grants.

The privateers could not be commanded: that was the nut of the trouble. They scattered, they went everywhere, their services were duplicated many times. Not organized, and probably not organizable, they could never be counted upon to perform set services. They took men away from the regular Navy and perhaps from the regular Army. They took away cannon, too. In moments of crisis  p142 they clogged the shipyards. As far as commerce destruction was concerned, they were unreliable. Twenty-five to thirty well-armed Navy sloops could have done at least as good a job as the 500‑odd American privateers of the war just ended, and they would have been much less expensive.

There was another angle to this old problem, a new angle. Iron ships, steam-driven ships, were coming in. Codgers still denied them a future, shaking their heads, tut‑tutting, pooh-poohing; but to most men who thought about the subject at all it was evident that the ugly new vessels — the noisy, dirty, shuddering, uncertain contraptions — eventually would prevail.

Oddly, it was America, the land where the engine-driven boat had been invented, that held out longest in the fated race between sail and steam. America had plenty of timber but very little coal and iron, whereas Great Britain, which backed the steam vessels, had plenty of iron and coal, but because of her desperate shipbuilding in the Napoleonic wars, and also because of previous forest wastage, she was woefully short of timber.

America did wonders with the sailing ship, bringing it as near to perfection as ever it could be, establishing with it records that stand to this day — and will always stand. In the centuries since its misty beginnings the seagoing vessel never had known so many improvements and refinements as it did in the comparatively short period between War of 1812 and the American Civil War; and a great deal of this was due to the privateers. Truth, the United States did not do it all single-handed, but she did most of it, and she was the leader, as all the world will  p143 acknowledge. Hers was that stunning, that proud and beautiful and doomed product, the clipper ship.

Across all the seas those magnificent vessels skimmed, making the world a smaller place. Behind them, rattling, clanking, polluting the air with the greasy black smoke from their stacks, threshing the water with their ridiculous paddles, limped the steamships. You would say, looking at them, that steam would never catch up with sail, and didn't deserve to.

Machinery costs money, as does metal. A man could not build a steamship, as he could build a sloop, in his own front yard. In a future war could private interests afford to construct big steamships? Even in the war just past it had been established, toward the end, that the converted merchantman was not enough, that expensive vessels had to be specially built for this type of work. Would that not be even truer later on?

It was some time before this argument could be proved, one way or the other, for a battle-scarred civilization had determined to settle down to a long period of peace. Men didn't even want to think about privateering.

And indeed, for about half a century the American people had no occasion to be reminded of the practice, except from time to time through the medium of the long, vexatious, complicated, and in the end unproductive Armstrong claims.

As was so often the case with privateers, the schooner General Armstrong, scuttled and burned in Fayal harbor, as described in our first chapter, had many owners. At the end of the war each of these and later their heirs sued the Portuguese government, alleging that it was at fault in  p144 letting the British Navy violate its neutrality. Portugal refused to pay unless she could first collect from Great Britain, and Great Britain stoutly denied that her Navy had done anything wrong.

This wrangle went on for many years, accumulating a great mass of letters, notes, and legal papers, through secretary after secretary, minister after minister, court after court, getting nowhere, until at last all parties agreed upon the Emperor of France, Napoleon III, as arbiter. He decided in favor of Portugal, and nobody paid anybody anything.

(Perhaps in part because of a feeling of guilt, Portugal was later to fish the General Armstrong's swivel gun from the bottom of Fayal harbor and present it to the United States. It was exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.)

The United States declaration of war against Mexico in 1846 held no mention of letters of marque and reprisal, and though that provision remained in the constitution, as it does to this day, nothing was done about it. The reason is simple. Mexico had no sea commerce.

When the Crimean War broke out in 1854 Great Britain flatly — and somewhat unexpectedly — announced that she would not grant letters of marque. No great sacrifice was involved, for it would hardly have been practical for British privateers to harry the few Russian vessels they might happen to meet in the Black Sea, the western Baltic, or the Pacific Ocean. Still the announcement had a ring of finality about it, coming as it did from the world's greatest carrier.

When that particular war was over, in 1856, the participants  p145 and a few well-wishers gathered at Paris to make a peace that they earnestly hoped would last. Out of the conference came this "solemn declaration":

"1st. Privateering is and remains abolished;

"2nd. The neutral flag protects the enemy's goods, except contraband of war;

"3rd. Neutral goods, except contraband of war, are not subject to seizure under the enemy's flag;

"4th. Blockades, to be binding, must be effective; i.e., maintained by a force sufficient to render approach to the enemy's coast really dangerous.

"The governments of the undersigned plenipotentiaries engage themselves to bring this declaration to the attention of those States which have not been invited to participate in the Congress of Paris, and to invite them to accede to it.

"Convinced that the maxims which they have proclaimed cannot but be received with gratitude by the whole world, the undersigned plenipotentiaries have no doubt that the efforts of their Governments to make their adoption general will be crowned with full success.

"The present declaration is not and shall not be binding except among the Powers which have signed or may accede to it."

The original signers, the conferees at Paris, were France, Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sardinia, and the Sublime Porte (Turkey).

On the whole, this so‑called Declaration of Paris was well and even enthusiastically received as a serious,  p146 thoughtful move toward world understanding. Hanover and the Two Sicilys acceded to it right away, followed within only a few months by the Papal States, Electoral Hesse, Tuscany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Oldenburg, Saxe-Altenburg, Sweden and Norway, Bremen and the Grand Duchy of Hesse, Saxony, Nassau, Lübeck, Greece, Saxe-Weimar, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Denmark, Württemberg, Bavaria, the German Confederation, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Portugal, Baden, Chile, Parma, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Guatemala, Haiti, the Argentine Confederation, Ecuador, Peru, Brunswick, Brazil, and Switzerland.

Of those asked, the only nations showing a reluctance to accede to the Declaration of Paris were Spain, Mexico, and the United States of America.

Each of these, be it noted, was a country with a long coastline and a weak navy, and Spain especially was doubtful about the free-ships, free-goods clause, her own adherence to the very opposite view being a tradition.

President Pierce of the United States was perplexed. On the one hand, he did not see how with the world the way it was the United States could afford just then to foreswear privateering. On the other hand, he was personally, and he knew that the country was generally, in favor of more liberal maritime laws. Also America would not be pleased to find herself in the company of such backward nations as Mexico and Spain as against virtually all the rest of the Western world.

Pierce's answer was sent, naturally, through his Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, a tall, heavy‑set man with a leonine head but with a twinkle in his eye. It has gone down in history as the Marcy Amendment, though properly  p147 it was no amendment at all but a whole new proposition, the adoption of which would have made all four of the other clauses unnecessary.

The Marcy Amendment said, in diplomatic language: Why not make a definite stand that all goods travelling by sea in time of war (excepting contraband) be as safe from seizure as though they were on land?

This was too direct, too plain, too sudden. It went to the heart of the matter, and went there too quickly. Though it was copiously discussed, nothing much else was done about it.

And then along came the American Civil War, and the whole situation was changed.

On April 10, 1861, Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor was called upon to surrender, and on April 13, after a bombardment, it did so.

On April 15 Abraham Lincoln, the newly sworn‑in president, issued a call for 42,000 volunteers to serve for three years or as long as the war should last. Nobody, in the North at least, thought that it would last long.

On April 17 Jefferson Davis, president of the just-organized Confederate States of America, issued an invitation for applications for letters of marque — and got a great many answers. Davis did this under the extraordinary war powers granted him by the Confederate Congress, but as a strict constitutionalist he was relieved and pleased when soon afterward that Congress specifically endorsed his action, passing a law to that effect.

It was a come‑on law. It called for bonds of $5000 for privateers manned by fewer than 150, $10,000 for those of 150 or more. It stipulated that every application must  p148 be backed by a bought, cleared vessel: there would be no blank commissions. And it made it extremely easy for the privateer to collect his prize money.

On April 19 President Lincoln declared the southern states to be in a state of blockade, and the United States Navy went into action. This was to be a real blockade, not a "paper" one.

In answer to Jefferson Davis's call for privateers President Lincoln issued yet another proclamation in which he declared that "such persons [captured privateersmen] will be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy." In other words, they would be hanged.

This brought forth a screech of disapproval from the South, and, as the event was to prove, it was ill advised and rash.

One of the first matters the new cabinet at Washington had to face was the unfinished business about the Declaration of Paris. Soon after the Marcy Amendment was sent out President Pierce had been succeeded by President Buchanan, who asked that this amendment be recalled in order to give him time to study it. This was done. Whether or not President Buchanan did study the Amendment and the Declaration of Paris he never did anything about them, and when President Lincoln took office there they still were on the State Department's desk.

They were taken up early, and it seemed to a majority of the cabinet members that they should be acted upon — and immediately. The South had seceded and was calling for privateers. The North, with a huge sea traffic, took that summons seriously. It was decided to accede to the Declaration  p149 of Paris right away, with or without the Marcy Amendment. On April 24 a circular dispatch went out to ambassadors and ministers in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, and France, directing them to sound out their various governments.

On May 13 a new ambassador to the Court of St. James, Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, arrived in London with his son and secretary Henry, the future historian. That very day the foreign minister, Lord John Russell, had struck an agreement with the French foreign minister, M. Thouvenel, to issue a proclamation of neutrality, and this they both did the next day, May 14.

In the circumstances a proclamation of neutrality amounted to recognition of the Confederate States of America as a separate, sovereign nation. The United States, understandably, didn't like this, especially as the example was followed by so many other European nations. To the United States this fighting was not properly a war at all but only an uprising, albeit a very large uprising.

Adams did not get an audience with the foreign minister until May 18, and at that time Lord Russell expressed the belief that the matter could be handled better by the British ambassador in Washington dealing directly with the Secretary of State. This was done; but since the British ambassador, Lord Lyons, was not authorized to strike a formal agreement, any more than was the French ambassador, the matter was tossed back into the laps of Paris and London. Adams, together with Dayton, the U. S. ambassador at Paris, distinctly felt that he was being stalled.

He was, and they were. This sudden interest in the  p150 Declaration of Paris on the part of a nation that had not even mentioned the subject for five years, was too obvious. The word "pirate" was not spoken nor written into any official paper, but it hung there, glittering balefully, all the same. Great Britain and the France Napoleon III had no intention of being obliged to regard possible Confederate privateers as pirates. They pointed to their respective proclamations of neutrality, in which the Confederacy was recognized as a belligerent. They added, under their breath, that the U. S. Senate would never ratify such an arrangement anyway. They did make it clear — and the other European nations echoed them — that no privateers, of either side, would be permitted to use their harbors or facilities. Further than that they would not go.

So it was that the United States never did accede to the Declaration of Paris.

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Page updated: 20 May 13