|The American Privateer "General Armstrong" (LC)|
The U.S. government has recently moved toward privatizing military services, most noticeably in Iraq, where profit-seeking contractors frequently engage in combat against insurgents. Many observers are shocked and disturbed by these developments, since they violate the governmental monopoly on military combat, which is probably the most accepted and intuitive aspect of the public-private distinction in America today. In fact, however, exclusive governmental control of combat is not an inherent nor even a particularly old part of the American experience. For much of U.S. history, one of the most important options in the nation's military repertoire was the use of privateers, that is, privately owned and operated ships, licensed to forcibly capture enemy merchant vessels and pocket the proceeds. Privateering constituted the principal U.S. offensive strategy in the maritime theater of the War of 1812 and was a major part of U.S. contingency planning through the Civil War. But sometime thereafter, the U.S. government ceased to consider the option. Thus far, no scholar has seriously investigated how and why the United States abandoned privateering. This Article fills the gap. It recreates the choice that the government faced, delineating how privateers differed from a public navy in terms of strategic capabilities, financing, technology, and the incentives and rules that operated on the persons who did the fighting, plus the institutions that enforced those rules. The Article concludes that privateering survived for so long -- in spite of persistent humanitarian objections that accountability structures were not sturdy enough to control the violence that privateers inflicted -- because the American people wished to avoid a large permanent military establishment, fearing that such an institution would be a menace to democracy. It was only in the 1890s, when the nation gave up its anti-militarist tradition and embarked on a program of imperial expansion overseas, that privateering proved functionally inadequate to the nation's new ambitions and therefore vanished from the realm of possibility.