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The Pirates of '76
Patriot Pirates

When Americans think of the Revolutionary War, the War for Independence, they think fife and drum, Minute Men, tri-cornered hats, George Washington on horseback.

When the British of 1776 — and ’77 and ’78 — thought of the American Revolution, many thought “pirates.” Cannon and cutlass and brigands on the high seas.

Washington and the Continental Congress unleashed thousands of American vessels — patriots and fortune seekers — to go after British shipping. And they did it with a vengeance.

This hour, On Point: Privateers, private booty, and the American Revolution.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Joining us from New York is Robert H. Patton, author of “Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution.”

Read an excerpt from “Patriot Pirates.”

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • paul milson

    It figures someone would write a book in the age of piracy claiming that we too were a “nation of pirates.” Hence we shouldn’t complain about pirates in Somalia or the barbary pirates of a couple of centuries ago.

    anything to advance a morally ambivalent agenda.

  • Richard Brabander

    To the previous poster, I suggest you listen to the show today- privateering was a state sanctioned and state regulated business enterprise which worked within the norms of international law and centuries of precedent during times of maritime conflict.

    Privateers not only had to pay an expesnive bond for thier offical liscense (letter of marque) to ensure good and lawful conduct while on the high seas, but were required to submit each ship capture and all the goods of said capture to a regulating body to determine if the capture was indeed lawful.

    No nation sent out more privateers than the English, if any English thought that American privateers were “pirates” during the Revolution it would be due to the fact they did not recognize the US as legitimate state, thus making American privateersmen “renegades.”

    To suggest that America’s long tradition of privateering makes our state a “nation of pirates” is absurd.

  • http://www.sparethings.org Salvatore Poier

    I agree with Richard Brabander comment. We cannot talk about North America as a nation of pirates, but it is indubitable that the growth and economic independence of North America was reached also thanks to privateers. Lots of books have been written on North American privateers, but the Kert, Faye Margaret (1997), Prize and prejudice. Privateering and naval prize in Atlantic Canada in the war of 1812 [Research in Maritime History, no. 11, St. John’s: International Maritime Economic History] is worth a look: it provides lots of statistics and an economic analysis of the North American “privateering industry”.
    It is interesting to see how the piracy/privateering boundary is always pretty thin and uncertain, depending on who is judging who: during the Golden Age of piracy, for instance, English privateers were considered pirates from Spanish; and the pattern has been re-established every time a privilege was on the table: books and music industry are, for instance, the last example of a war between empires (nowadays no more on the physical seas, but over the Internet).
    I am working on this topic for four years now, and I hope that the book I’m writing on this will be published soon. So, stay tuned ;)

  • M. Reed

    My ancestors were privateers out of Salem during the Revolution. At one point Captain Samuel Reed’s ship was captured by the British. They regained control by getting the British prize crew drunk, manuevering them into the cabin, and jamming the barrel into the companionway to keep them below.

    He was a partner is several ships–not necessarily privateers–with Sir William Phipps, governor of Maine.

  • Keith

    The elephant in the room of this discussion and indeed the American Revolution is the Atlantic Slave Trade. Slavery and control of the slave trade was central to both the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

    The fortunes pirates were after were slaves. The mansion all alone the New England coast were built base on fortunes from the slave trade.

    45 minutes into the show finally a mention of slavery, despicable that it took this long!!!

  • Barbara

    As a kid reading GONE WITH THE WIND, it was never clear
    to me exactly what Rhett Butler did that made him so fabulously wealthy. Was he a Privateer?

  • http://houseofrude.com Lloyd

    Have to laugh as I listen to our hosts at National Corporate Radio let the suggestion that the Blackwater butchers are of the same cloth as Colonial privateers float out across the airwaves, completely unchallenged(in fact, Tom’s muttering “yes, yes”, & chuckling, in support of this gentle cleansing/pathetic canard).


    Are KBR & XE very big “donors”?

  • Keith

    For a great song about privateering, check out Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers”. There are several versions on YouTube. Stan Rogers’ own version is the classic…also found a good version by the Bard of Cornwall.

  • Chris Cabot

    I write this from Beverly, Mass., home of many a Revolutionary War privateer. As to whether they were privateers or pirates, surely the outcome of the war has a major bearing. Had we lost, the privateers would have been insurgents in an unsuccessful revolt, not lawful privateers operating under letters of marque from a sovereign government, as was the case in the War of 1812 in which there were also many privateers. Benjamin Franklin knew this well when he said on the signing of the Declaration of Independence “We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” So certainly the privateers took the risk, for profit, of being treated as pirates, just as other revolutionaries took the risk of being treated as traitors.

  • Christina Willis

    What a FANTASTIC interview!! Thank you! Apropos of several things that were mentioned:

    1) Here is the link for the Brown University Slavery and Justice Report requested by Brown President Ruth Simmons to investigate any origins of the Brown endowment in monies from the slave trade. The report follows issues far broader than those solely about Brown. The final suggestions by the report committee also seek to serve a broader audience than Brown alone. Here is the link:


    2) The Providence Journal, RI’s largest daily newspaper, did an excellent investigative reporting series into the history of the slave trade in RI. Here is the link for their fantastic website:


    3) Katrina Brown is a descendant of the DeWolf family, the largest single family in US history to be involved in the slave trade (larger than the Brown family). She made a wonderful documentary film, Traces of the Trade, wherein she and other contemporary family members seek to find out about their family’s history and the wider RI history in which that trade played out. One of her cousins wrote an excellent accompanying book. The film has been shown at Sundance and on PBS. Here is the link to the film:


    Thank you so much for that wonderful hour! I am so interested in how American history played out, beyond the jingoism that often divides people and sometimes credits people with purity of motives that is not deserved while under-representing the contributions and heroism of peoples excluded in the childhood history books of many of us, even in the Baby Boomer generation. I’m not creditting the privateers here with heroism, but rather commending this KIND of history-reporting and comparing it to jingoism. Also, the ENERGY of that interview was such a JOLT!!!!! Thank you!!

  • LM

    An interesting question that was not discussed is the whether a connection can be made between the ability to justify the use of privateers to the justification of our 20th cy foreign policy in numerous small nations where we have propped up governments that would support the confiscation of land by U.S. corporations, and then the bearing of the use of privateers on the development of the idea of American Exceptionalism. Tom Ashbrook, can you bring back Patton and add someone to address this? Or perhaps this is something I could look into.

  • http://living.jdewperry.com/ James

    Keith rightly points out that the slave trade is a vital theme running through this history. Christina, for her part, brings up the DeWolf family of Rhode Island, who were the most successful slave traders in the nation’s history.

    It just so happens that James D’Wolf, the patriarch of the DeWolf slave traders, was also a legendary privateer.

    At the outbreak of the War of 1812, D’Wolf alone owned more ships than were found in the entire U.S. Navy, and he sent seven of them to sea as authorized privateers. In the end, D’Wolf’s 18-gun brig, the Yankee, was the most successful privateer in the War of 1812, capturing 41 enemy ships and British property worth over $5 million.

    James D’Wolf eventually became the second-richest man in the nation, and while slave trading provided an essential foundation for his fortune, his privateering generated staggering profits as well.

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