The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twenty-Six: Procurement and Piracy


I want to briefly talk about piracy and procurement during the American Revolution of 1776-1783. The best way to get into this, I think, is with a quote from economic historian, Kevin Phillips.

He explained that: "[W]ar itself remained the principal pathway to new territory and grandeur for rulers as well as to huge fees and commissions for paymaster generals, principal contractors and commissaries, naval officers in search of prize money, and commissioned privateers" (1).

Furthermore, "all six of the major waves of inflation that have swept the United States have come in its wake, from Bunker Hill to the Vietnam build up" (2).

Mr. Phillips continued: "The money in circulation has always had to be increased sharply and each new flood that sluiced through a wartime economy has left expanded enterprises and huge profits in sectors from transportation and food to munitions" (3).

I am going into this simply because it should not be forgotten. I just want to give us the fullest possible picture of what the American Revolution was about and involved.

Some of the richest men in Massachusetts, following King George's War (1744-1748), were those who had managed, financed, and supplied the campaigns launched from New England against the French in Canada. About a hundred thousand pounds sterling found its way into the pockets of the governor, William Shirley, the Louisburg expedition's commander, Sir William Pepperrell, and the three merchants who controlled provisioning --- Thomas Hancock, Charles Apthorp, and John Erving (4).

The French and Indian War (1754-1763) was even more profitable for prominent people on both sides of the Atlantic. "Senior eighteenth-century officials," wrote Kevin Phillips, "were expected to enrich themselves, especially those who had purchased their positions" (5).

The expense of defeating the French nearly doubled British debt. But never fear, the paymaster-general of the British army, one Henry Fox, took a sizeable fortune out of the funds which passed through his hands (6).

In 1756, a year after New York's selection as the thirteen colonies' 'general Magazine of Arms and Military Stores,' a jealous Ben Franklin, a Pennsylvania Quaker, said that, 'New York is growing immensely rich, by Money brought into it from all Quarters for the Pay and Subsistence of the troops' (7).

Robert Morris of Philadelphia

He was initially head of Congress's procurement committee. Then, after 1781, he was superintendent of finance. From 1775-1777, about one-fourth of the contracts he awarded, went to his own firm, Willing and Morris (8).

Morris raked in more profits from privateering, much of it coordinated by his business associate, William Bingham, who had been named Congress's principal agent in the Caribbean. Mr. Morris was also involved in the quasi-public Bank of North America; and may have been America's richest man in 1782-83 (9).

Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts

He was the Continental Army's quartermaster general. Late in the war, he insisted that corruption in the purchase of supplies and equipment had almost doubled what the new U.S. government owed in debt by 1783. And, as usually happens, the notes of indebtedness, themselves, became like manna from heaven for speculators; and in this way many of the well-connected profiteers, who had doubled the postwar debt, profited a second time (10).


It is likely, during this period, that every millionaire (8, 10, or even as many as 15) owed a "fair share" of his wealth to wartime or postwar government connections. In the 1790s, fortunes made from privateering and government finance represented the largest pools of wealth in the United States. The second ingredient of war and postwar wealth was government contracts and profitable wartime connections (11).

The Revolutionary War realigned wealth and status in the Thirteen Colonies with a vengeance. It is worth remembering that roughly 100,000 people ("Loyalists" to the Crown) left America and went back to Britain; and many of them received British compensation (12).

By the way, that property of the one hundred thousand, was redistributed among the Patriots.

This tremendous shakeup of wealth patterns was remarked upon at the time.

Robert Treat Paine of Boston said: 'The course of war has thrown property into channels, where before it never was, has increased little streams to overflowing rivers...' (13).

John Jay of New York said the same, as did others in Philadelphia (14).

Historian David Ramsay wrote that the new men had replaced the old in Charleston and 'rapidly advanced their interests' (15).

Kevin Phillips: "One corollary was to seed misperceptions of the fluidity of U.S. society itself" (16).

That seeming "fluidity of U.S. society itself" would be romanticized by travel writers like Alexis de Tocqueville and J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur (real name: Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur), and possibly others.

In a 1782 book, Crevecoeur wrote: 'What then is the American, this new man? He is an American, who, leaving behind all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the government he embraces, and the new rank he holds' (17).

This romanticizing of the fluidity of American society would have inspired further emigration from England and Europe to America, in the face of the privatization of land going on at the time in England and some parts of Europe.

The plantation south had not come out of the Revolutionary War so well. These had been the richest mainland colonies in the prewar period. But the region was devastated by British military campaigns and slave losses (18).

Manhattan garnered riches from "seaborne commerce raiding." Both in the 1740s and during the war of 1754-1763, privateers like the Royal Hester earned lucrative returns for merchant investors (19).

Historian Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace noted that between 1739-1763, two million pounds sterling (in plunder) went to about two hundred local investors (20).

In the 1690s, merchants in the American colonies often covertly funded pirate missions to plunder gold, silks, and ivory in the waters off India, Arabia, and Madagascar (21).

According to Kevin Phillips, as of 1763, it is reasonable to suggest that many of the thirteen colonies' richest families owed 30-40 percent of their wealth to the combination of war, privateering (which is the covert funding of pirate expeditions), and earlier piracy (22).

In the seven years following the fall of 1775, about two thousand "brigs, barks, brigantines, ketches, sloops, and even a few frigates" sailed under the United States flag, or one of the thirteen colonies. They would collectively capture three thousand British ships, valued at the then phenomenal sum of $18 million (23).

To continue with the geography of all of this, you should also know that rebel privateering (pirate expedition financing and promotion) and "postwar capital" was concentrated in Philadelphia and the "open ports of New England": Boston (after 1776), Marble Head, Salem, Gloucester, and Newburyport in Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and New London, Connecticut (24).

The New England region supplied 1200 of the 2000 rebel privateer ships. Just so there is no doubt about the situation we're looking at, Kevin Phillips tells us: "Booty underpinned postwar preeminence everywhere in New England" (25).

Asa Clapp: had been a privateer; became the richest man in Maine (26).

John Langdon of Portsmouth: New Hampshire's most successful pirate or "commerce raider"; became governor and U.S. Senator (27).

John Brown: privateer and slave trader; his family gave their name to Brown University in 1804 (28).

1780: Men with privateering and war supply connections were climbing into the upper ranks of economic life (29).

1784: They were moving to the top (30).

1790: Those men with previous privateering and war supply connections were the Boston business elite (31).

The top five with the highest 1790 tax assessment:

1. Thomas Russell: merchant and privateer; 2. John Hancock: smuggler, merchant, and privateer; 3. Joseph Barrell: contractor to the French fleet; 4. Mungo Mackay: distiller and privateer; 5. Joseph Russell: merchant and privateer (32).


There is no particularly great "moral" to the story of this installment of the series. Piracy, procurement (both legitimate and corrupt), profiteering, and every other form of opportunism are things that happen with all wars.

I suppose if there is any "takeaway," here, its just that the American Revolutionary War, for all the romanticism that we Americans attach to it, was, pragmatically, no different from any other war. And, as I have mentioned before, perhaps the real value of the information we have provided, here, is to give the reader---particularly those following this series---a three-dimensional view of the American Revolution.

And I suppose we might just observe that privateering, procurement, government contracts, and speculation on government war debt laid the foundation for the future of the northern colonies, especially New England; and this explains why it was that the northern colonies were not so dependent upon plantation slave labor as the south.

The geographical situation was such that the north put together an economy that did not lend itself to the massive use of plantation-style slave labor as the south did.

There is not even any particular moral indictment to make---in my opinion---about the fact that so much of northern colony and New England colony success, during and after the Revolution, was built upon privateering. Perhaps nothing different could be expected of a new country born of revolt against its former colonial master.

Okay, I'll leave it there.

Thanks for reading!


1. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, 2002. 9

2. ibid, 9-10

3. ibid, 10

4. ibid

5. ibid

6. ibid

7. ibid

8. ibid, 12

9. ibid

10. ibid, 15

11. ibid

12. ibid, 11-12

13. ibid, 15

14. ibid

15. ibid

16. ibid

17. Hodgson, Godfrey. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. Yale University Press, 2009. 2

18. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy. 15

19. ibid, 10

20. ibid

21. ibid

22. ibid

23. ibid, 12-13

24. ibid, 13

25. ibid

26. ibid

27. ibid

28. ibid

29. ibid, 14

30. ibid

31. ibid

32. ibid

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tamarawilhite profile image

tamarawilhite 16 months ago from Fort Worth, Texas

One man's piracy is another man's privateering. We forget that Queen Elizabeth rewarded people for stealing Spanish gold, as long as they paid their share to the Queen.

wingedcentaur profile image

wingedcentaur 16 months ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! Author

Yes, quite right, Tamara.

Actually, I should have made that correction. I have learned that 'privateering' was piracy under government contract. Sir Francis Drake, for example, was a licensed and officially recognized pirate on behalf of the English Crown.

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