Out of such conditions, and out of the wars which the Napoleonic plague forced upon the world, sprung the practise of privateering; and while it is the purpose of this book to tell the story of the American merchant sailor only, it could not be complete without some account, however brief, of the American privateersman. For, indeed, the two were one throughout a considerable period of our maritime history, the sailor turning privateersman or the privateersman sailor as political or trade conditions demanded. In our colonial times, and in the earlier days of the nation, to be a famous privateersman, or to have had a hand in fitting out a successful privateer, was no mean passport to fame and fortune. Some of the names most eminent in the history of our country appear in connection with the outfitting or command of privateers; and not a few of the oldest fortunes of New England had their origin in this form of legalized piracy. And, after all, it is the need of the times that fixes the morality of an act. To-day privateering is dead; not by any formal agreement, for the United States, at the Congress of Paris, refused to agree to its outlawry; but in our war with Spain no recourse was had to letters of marque by either combatant, and it seems unlikely that in any future war between civilized nations either party will court the contempt of the world by going back to the old custom of chartering banditti to steal the property of private citizens of the hostile nation if found at sea. Private property on shore has long been respected by the armies of Christendom, and why its presence in a ship rather than in a cart makes it a fit object of plunder baffles the understanding. Perhaps in time the kindred custom of awarding prize money to naval officers, which makes of them a species of privateers, and pays them for capturing a helpless merchant ship, while an army officer gets nothing for taking the most powerful fort, may likewise be set aside as a relic of medieval warfare.
In its earliest days, of course, privateering was the weapon of a nation weak at sea against one with a large navy. So when the colonies threw down the gage of battle to Great Britain, almost the first act of the Revolutionary government was to authorize private owners to fit out armed ships to prey on British commerce. Some of the shipowners of New England had enjoyed some experience of the profits of this peculiar industry in the Seven Years’ War, when quite a number of colonial privateers harried the French on the seas, and accordingly the response was prompt. In enterprises of this character the system of profit-sharing, already noted in connection with whaling, obtained. The owners took a certain share of each prize, and the remainder was divided among the officers and crew in certain fixed proportions. How great were the profits accruing to a privateersman in a “run of luck” might be illustrated by two facts set forth by Maclay, whose “History of American Privateers” is the chief authority