An illuminating look at an underappreciated chapter of the Revolutionary War: the daring, faintly disreputable, privateer war on British maritime interests.
As Robert Morris, financier to the American Revolution, remarked of the British, “They have much more property to lose than we have.” Accordingly, and following wartime conventions of the era, the Continental Congress commissioned citizen sailors to attack British shipping. For their towering self-interest and for the drain they took on scarce resources necessary to the Continental Navy, John Paul Jones detested them. For carrying the war to the British, Washington, Franklin and John Adams, from a polite remove, cheered them on. For the staggering potential profit, the nation’s leading financiers, Philadelphia’s Morris, the notorious Browns of Providence and an entirely new generation of entrepreneurs and speculators rushed to fund them. Patton (Life Between Wars, 1997, etc.) tells marvelous sea stories about privateers Jeremiah O’Brien, John Manley, James Mugford, Gustavus Conyngham and about the Royal Navy, charged with the impossible task of patrolling a 1,000 miles of coastline with only 50 warships to protect against the depredations of these “legal” pirates. Though the privateers had much to gain, if captured they were denied all rights typically accorded prisoners of war and held under the terms of Parliament’s controversial “Pirate Act of 1777,” untried and without the possibility of exchange in wretched prison ships. Patton also subtly examines the curious interplay between patriotic purpose and economic gain, and the always uneasy marriage between public service and private speculation. Through his sensitive treatment of Morris and the Browns—and especially of Silas Deane, the colonies’ agent in France—and of Nathanael Greene, Washington’s favorite general, the author demonstrates how, from the beginning, rampant capitalism compromised the virtue of the infant republic and how privateering specifically accustomed the country to a variety of enduring, sometimes dubious, financial practices.
A pleasing mixture of high-seas adventure and shrewd analysis.