John Hancock Signs Orders Laying Out Rules for the Capture of British Ships in 1776[Revolutionary War] and [John Dunlap]. John Hancock Congressional Order Signed as president of the Continental Congress. One printed page, 8" x 13" (sight), n. p. [Philadelphia: printed by John Dunlap], April 3, 1776. Privateering, legal authorization by a government for private ships to raid and plunder enemy vessels during a time of war (in essence, state sanctioned piracy), was a practice first employed by the English in the mid-thirteenth century. To distinguish the privateer from the pirate, letters of marque or privateer commissions (which were distinctly different until the eighteenth century, when the differences between the two became blurred) were issued thus forcing the privateer to follow (usually) a set of guidelines set forth by that nation's government. Enlisting the help of privateers and merchant mariners was still in common usage during the time of the Revolutionary War and was employed by both the American and British governments.
On March 23, 1776, the Continental Congress passed an act for the commissioning of privateers or armed merchant ships and, shortly thereafter, laid out the rules of engagement each ship would be obliged to follow, titled "Instructions to the Commanders of Private Ships or Vessels of War, which shall have Commissions or Letters of Marque and Reprisal, authorising [sic] them to make Captures of British Vessels and Cargoes." The order is divided into eleven articles and reads, in part:
"I. You may...attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to the Inhabitants of Great-Britain, on the High Seas, or between High-water and low-water Marks, except Ships and Vessels bringing Persons who intend to settle and reside in the United Colonies, or bringing Arms, Ammunition or Warlike Stores to the said Colonies, for the Use of such Inhabitants thereof as are Friends to the American Cause...
II. You may...attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels whatsoever carrying Soldiers, Arms...[etc.]... to any of the British Armies or Ships of War employed against these Colonies.
III. You shall bring such Ships and Vessels as you shall take...to some convenient Port or Ports of the United Colonies that Proceedings may thereupon be had in due Form...
IV. You or one of your Chief Officers shall bring or send the Master and Pilot and one or more Principal person or Persons...of every Ship or Vessel by you taken, as soon after the Capture as may be, to the Judge or Judges of such Court as aforesaid...
V. You shall keep and preserve every Ship or Vessel and Cargo by you taken...
VI. If you, or any of your Officers or Crew shall, in cold Blood, kill or maim...any Person or Persons surprized [sic] in the Ship or Vessel you shall take, the Offender shall be severely punished.
VII. You shall...send to Congress written Accounts of the Captures you shall make, with the Number and Names of the Captives...and Intelligence of what may occur or be discovered concerning the Designs of the Enemy...
VIII. One Third...of your whole Company shall be Land-Men.
IX. You shall not Ransome any Prisoners or Captives...
X. You shall observe all such further Instructions as Congress shall hereafter give...
XI. If you shall do any Thing contrary to these Instructions...you shall not only forfeit your Commission...but be responsible to the Party grieved..."
Hancock has placed his usual bold signature and paraph at the bottom. Smoothed folds with some weakening, especially at the intersections of the horizontal folds with the vertical, resulting in minor loss of paper and text. Some separation along the vertical fold near the lower edge passing through Hancock's name, only slightly affecting the signature. Some light toning around the edges with one small spot of foxing. Matted with a 5.5" x 6.5" (sight) engraved portrait of John Hancock and 7.5" x 5.5" (sight) engraved reproduction of John Trumbull's painting, "Declaration of Independence," to an overall size of 27.5" x 30.25".
Though exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that the United States government issued upwards of 1,700 letters of marque and privateering commissions during the course of the war. Approximately 800 ships captured or destroyed nearly 600 British vessels and cost the British government $18 million dollars in damages. Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution still lists the issuance of letters of marque and reprisal as one of the enumerated powers of Congress.
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