Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Argument for Privateering Today

A Blimp of the same class as the Resolute

One of the cultural features that characterized warfare in the twentieth century was the virtual absence of privateers. Arguably, there were a few privateers, but even that has been discounted recently. The current entry on privateering in the Wikipedia says:

20th century

In December 1941 and the first months of 1942, Goodyear commercial L class blimp Resolute operating out of Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, California, flew anti-submarine patrols. As the civilian crew was armed with a rifle, many thought this made the ship a privateer, and that she and sister commercial blimps were operated under letter of marque until the Navy took over operation.[32] Without congressional authorization, the Navy would not have been able to legally issue any letters of marque.
The last time I read this entry, prior to writing my novel Theodosia and the Pirates, it was much more positively in favor of the the idea that the blimp in question was issued a letter of marque. But whether or not the United States government did issue such a document authorizing the deployment of the Resolute is not the only question we should ask. Because in point of fact, historically many well known American privateers received their letters of marque from governments other than that of the United States. For instance, Jean Laffite had a letter of marque from the Republic of Cartagena. Later, he awarded other privateers letters of marque as head of the government in Galveston, as described in Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain. 

Recently, Austin Petersen, who is competing with two others for the Libertarian nomination for president of the United States, spoke at great length about the idea of issuing letters of marque and reprisal without declaring war against any nation. This way we can go after terrorists without starting a war. I am certainly in favor of that.

 Petersen mentioned the War of 1812 and American privateers, but not Jean Laffite, the most  important privateer contributor to that war on the American side. Is it because Laffite was not issued a letter of marque by the United States government? His letter of marque from the Republic of Cartagena allowed him to go after Spanish ships at a time when the United States had not declared war against Spain, even as Spain and Britain plotted together to take down the United States and return America to its status as a British colony. When Captain Lockyer approached the Baratarian privateer with an offer from the British, the letters he bore said that England had a treaty with Spain and had not an enemy in the world except the United States. He offered Laffite a chance to earn money and a position in the British Navy, but Laffite turned it down, because he wanted to be an American and an independent privateer, not a government employee. Laffite informed the United States of the British offer and of the British fleet's current location off the coast of Mobile. Instead of going after the British, the American Navy then attacked Laffite and his fleet of light privateering ships. Why? Because already privateering had gone into disrepute, and people like Commodore Daniel Patterson saw private fleets as an infringement on the career Navy officer's prerogative to a monopoly on waging war. 

Patterson did not use the ships he plundered from Laffite to fight the British. He sold them at auction to line his own pockets. But Laffite nevertheless managed to save the United States at the Battle of New Orleans by providing flints and gunpowder, which the Americans had run out of, as well as artillery and men to man it. And when his service was done, all he was granted for it was an empty pardon, and a flippant fare-thee-well. He was never compensated for his looted ships, and in the history books he has gone down as a pirate.

There are many reasons to prefer privateers over a standing army, not the least of which are these:

  • Privateers can run a fleet on a shoestring budget, and always at their own expense. It is the enemy that pays their wages, not the American people.
  • Privateers are a volunteer force, so nobody has to be drafted and nobody has to be taxed, and nobody need lose life or limb who does not get a share in the booty.
  • Privateers can take care of business while the United States maintains neutrality, but this can only work if they are allowed to use letters of marque issued by countries other than the United States.
This last point is the one under contention between those like Austin Petersen, who favors privateering, and the vast majority of the American political establishment, who are against it. Neither side is very good at articulating what the problem is, so I will spell it out for you here: We must repeal the Neutrality Act so we can go back to the state of privateering at the time when the United States came into being.

For an in depth discussion of the Neutrality Act, read the article linked above. But here is a short recap. At the time the constitution of the United States came into effect, there was nothing to keep individual US citizens from fighting on any side they wished of any war going on anywhere in the world.  Many American privateers had letters of marque from France that allowed them to wage open war against Britain on the high seas. This was legal and moral and made sense, because France had helped the United States win its war of independence against Britain.

Now the government of the United States was not at war with  Britain. In fact, they were at peace. But it was legal and lawful and right for each citizen to pursue his own foreign policy, none of them binding the United States or bringing about any breach in the peace. The constitution provides that the executive branch cannot go to war unless Congress authorizes an official declaration of war. But the constitution also provides that any powers not granted to the United States government explicitly are reserved to the States and to the people. And by "the people" the constitution does not mean "collectively" as in "People's Republic of China" where everybody has to agree in order for one person to do something. "The People" in the United States constitution refers to the individual citizens, one by one. Any of them could go to war any day they wished, so long as the US as a whole was not involved in it. And this is exactly what Americans did, until 1794 when the Neutrality Act was passed.

Who lobbied for the Neutrality Act? Why, Britain, of course! They did not want to be beset by those pesky American privateers, so they threatened the United States diplomatically, saying the peace between our two nations depended on the passage in the United States congress of a law outlawing privateering. Should we let Britain make our laws? What good was the revolutionary war, if they can dictate terms from afar?

The Neutrality Act does not outlaw privateering if the United States picks a side in a foreign war and grants letters of marque to Americans to go to war against declared enemies. But it makes it illegal for an individual American to go to war against a country with which the United States is at peace.

Jefferson initially opposed the Neutrality Act. It was Adams who wanted it, so he could pursue an undeclared Quasi-War against  France. Jefferson and Burr came to power after Adams' one single term in office, on a platform of repealing all those laws that the Federalists had put into effect in order to quash anyone who opposed Britain. But... Jefferson forgot all about that when Aaron Burr set out to conquer Mexico as a private citizen, acting at his own expense. Did you know that Burr was found not guilty of treason, but guilty of violating the Neutrality Act? When it served Jefferson's purposes, the law passed at the behest of Britain was allowed to stand.

Privateering came more and more under attack after the War of 1812, largely due to international accords that went contrary to the United States constitution. Today, most people do not know the difference between a pirate and a privateer. This situation will not be remedied unless we deal with the Neutrality Act head on. It is unconstitutional, as it abrogates the rights reserved to the people in that document. But you can be sure that no Supreme Court Justice, conservative or liberal, is going to rule it unconstitutional, because they are all Statists, right wing or left. So it is up to Congress to repeal it, once the Libertarian Party takes over.

No comments:

Post a Comment