Massachusetts Town’s 1st Privateer Schooner Agreement Made at Newburyport’s “Schooner Manhattan” by Captain Allexander McCully and Its Thirty-One Crew Members for Newburyport's First Privateer Vessel of the War of 1812 an Agreement Printed & Signed Ten Days After Law is Passed
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July 7, 1812-Dated (June 18th, 1812) War of 1812 Declared, Rare and Unusual Partially-Printed Document Signed, by the Signatures and Witness for the Privateer Crew of 31 Sailors Individually Signed Articles of Agreement for the Privateer “Schooner Manhattan”, less than one month after the United States Declaration of War, Good.
On June 18th, 1812 the United States officially declared a state of War on Great Britain. On June 26th, 1812, a week after Congress voted for War, it passed a bill allowing Privateers, which President James Madison signed into law the next day on June 27th. Offered is an exceptionally important American War of 1812 Naval Warfare Document signed just 10 Days Later on July 7th, hardly enough time to typeset and print this Agreement since the Privateers Act was authorized as law in the United States. This official printed and acknowledged Articles of Agreement between the town of Newburyport (MA), and the Captain and Crew of the “Schooner Manhattan” whose purpose was to sail from Newburyport, “... on a cruise of 1 month against the enemies of the United States of America.”
This Privateer Agreement measures 16.5” x 13” and is not in the best of condition, being laid down on a tan craft paper as a reinforcement backing, due to the fragile condition of the top layer source Document. The upper half of this Partially-Printed Document records the printed terms of Agreement between the Town and the Crew, and includes specific instructions as to how any booty and “Prizes” taken were to be distributed, and what would happen in case of instances of crew insubordination, mutiny, or negligence of duty.
Ominously, its Article 6 addresses what would happen if a crew member was injured stating: “If any person should lose a leg or arm in fight, he shall receive the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars -- If any person shall loose (sic) an eye in fight, he shall receive the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars” and so on. The lower half of this Document includes the actual Handwritten inked signatures for the crew of 31 men and witness to their signing (though some names have been struck through), some having condition issues in readability. Signers each record their rank and job title, including the Captain, the officers, and the seamen. Some paper loss affects a portion of seven lines of the agreement where lacking near center, at some of the witness signatures, and irregular roughness lacking some of the outer borders. Nonetheless, this is an incredible record of the hiring of an actual Privateer, thus its rarity exceeds its condition.
The Schooner Manhattan was Newburyport's first Privateer of the War of 1812, according to Blake's History of Newburyport, page 197. The printed Agreement form describes the share of prizes to be issued to each category of officer and crew. Rewards for the loss of limb or eye are detailed, and additional shares are stipulated for the man who first sights and boards a prize. The term of the Privateering ventures cruise was only one month. The rarity of this historic Privateer’s Agreement is further increased as it was signed and issued less than 30 Days after the United States Declaration of War on Great Britain. A “Privateer” is a Private Person or Ship that engages in Maritime Warfare under a Commission of War. Since robbery under arms was a common aspect of seaborne trade, until the early 19th century all merchant ships carried arms. A sovereign or delegated authority issued commissions, also referred to as a “Letter of Marque,” during wartime.
The official Commission Document empowered the holder to carry on all forms of hostility permissible at sea by the usages of war. This included attacking foreign vessels and taking them as prizes, and taking prize crews as prisoners for exchange. Captured ships were subject to condemnation and sale under prize law, with the proceeds divided by percentage between the Privateer's sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew.
A “Percentage” share of the booty’s value usually went to the issuer of the commission (i.e. the sovereign or government).
Privateering allowed sovereign governments to raise revenue for war by mobilizing privately owned Armed Ships and sailors to subsidize state power. For its participants, Privateering provided the potential for a greater income of wealth and profit than obtainable as a regular merchant seafarer. Of course, it was also at greater risk to life, limb and one’s liberty. However, this incentive increased the risk of Privateers sometimes resulted in turning to piracy when war ended.
The official Commission Document usually protected Privateers from accusations of piracy, but in practice, the historical legality and status of Privateers could be vague. Depending on the specific sovereign and the time period, Commissions might be issued hastily; Privateers might take actions beyond what was authorized in the Commission, including after its expiry.
A Privateer who continued raiding after the expiration of a Commission, or the signing of a Peace Treaty, could face accusations of piracy. The risk of piracy and the emergence of the modern state system of centralised military control caused the decline of Privateering by the end of the 19th century.
When the United States went to war against Britain in June 1812, the U.S. Navy had about 15 warships in commission, including a squadron of three frigates and two sloops-of-war that sailed from New York within an hour of receiving word of the declaration of war. America began the War of 1812 with no privateers ready to sail. Privately owned merchant ships that, in wartime, were armed by their owners and licensed by the government to attack the maritime trade of the enemy, privateers profited by the sale of ships and cargoes they captured. As soon as word of the war arrived, ship owners in the port cities up and down the Atlantic coast raced to get their sleek sloops and schooners to sea in their new predatory role. They found cannon where they could, signed up oversized civilian crews, and sent messengers to Washington to get licenses called letters-of-marque from the federal government. On 26 June 1812, a week after Congress voted for war, it passed a bill allowing privateers, which President James Madison signed the next day.
With their licenses—which would make their captures lawful, not piratical, prizes—and their ships manned and outfitted for war, privateers began to stream out of American ports in July 1812. Observers assumed that privateers, a historical weapon of weaker maritime powers, would be critical to the American war effort. In a 4 August 1812 letter, former President Thomas Jefferson predicted that the Royal Navy would prevail against the U.S. Navy, but “our privateers will eat out the vitals of their commerce.” Jefferson was no great military mind—in the same letter, he infamously predicted that conquering Canada would be a “mere matter of marching”—but he may have been right about the privateers.
The U.S. Navy began the war with resounding single-ship victories—the Constitution sank the Guerriere, the United States captured the Macedonian, and the Java was blown up after “Old Ironsides” pummeled her into a wreck. In many of the recent books about the War of 1812, those victories receive a great deal of attention. That is not surprising. They stirred America’s pride at a time when the country was reeling from the capture of Detroit and defeats along the border with Canada. Yet the U.S. Navy’s inspiring battles on the high seas did not alter the course of the war. The loss of a few warships did not seriously weaken the Royal Navy. Rather, three other maritime campaigns were significant:
• the battles for control of the lakes (Erie, Ontario, Champlain) that were critical for both sides’ efforts to attack or defend the northern frontier
• the British blockade of the American coast, which slowly strangled the U.S. economy and strained the government’s financial ability to wage war
• America’s privateering campaign against British trade.
Privateering was critical for the American war effort. In the three years of the War of 1812, U.S. Navy warships captured about 250 vessels, but American privateers took at least five times that number of British merchant vessels—at least 1,200, but probably as many as 2,000, although no one knows for sure. The privateers burned some of the British merchant ships they captured, ransomed others back to their owners, lost many to recapture by the British navy, and brought home prize ships and goods that sold for millions of dollars.
The privateering business was thoroughly modern and capitalistic, with ownership consortiums to split investment costs and profits or losses, and a group contract to incentivize the crew, who were paid only if their ship made profits. A sophisticated set of laws ensured that the capture was “good prize,” and not fraud or robbery.
After the courts determined that a merchant ship was a legitimate capture, auctioneers sold off her cargo of coffee, rum, wine, food, hardware, china, or similar consumer goods, which ultimately were bought and consumed by Americans. Because it involved so many owners and seamen directly, and the American populace indirectly, some earlier historians termed the privateers’ war a “war of the people.” In addition, the government took a large cut of the proceeds off the top as customs duties, which flowed into the Treasury.
As the British blockade began to grind the American economy down, it also largely prevented the U.S. Navy from getting to sea. With the Army’s seasonal campaigns against Canada a failure, the privateers’ war on the enemy was the only way America could strike back at the British Empire. The privateers’ exploits at sea became legendary for their ruses and flair. The psychological effect (and the financial effect) on Liverpool and London merchants as the American privateers made brazen captures in the Irish Sea and the English Channel ultimately may have played a role in curbing British enthusiasm for continuing the war against America—especially after Napoleon, the existential enemy of Britain, abdicated in April 1814.
Most of the books published for the bicentennial of the War of 1812 are oblivious to privateering. Although the analogy is obviously not perfect, writing about the war at sea in the War of 1812 without referring to privateers is like writing about the war at sea in World Wars I or II without referring to U-boats. Despite the critical role of privateers, despite the entrepreneurship and drama in the sort of war they waged, it is surprising that most of the new War of 1812 books by American writers minimize, if not air-brush out, the privateers’ contribution.
As fewer historians write about privateers, the popular understanding of privateers disappears, and a critical aspect of American maritime history may be lost. Yet according to Andrew Lambert, American privateers captured 1 of every 15 British merchant vessels during the War of 1812. By the last year of the war, privateers were really all the United States could mount as a maritime threat to Britain. Whether their audacious captures and burnings influenced British public opinion or diplomacy are contested issues. But privateers were a critical aspect of war-fighting for the United States in the War of 1812.
Although nations had used privateers for centuries before 1812, privateering became a peculiarly American way of war, an effort from the ground up, decentralized, tied to entrepreneurship and patriotism. Privateering drew on the resources of the civilian world, and without calling upon a beleaguered and insolvent government for funds or direction, privateers allowed the profit-making motive, and the mass of American people, to be harnessed to the war effort.