The word "privateer" conjures a romantic image in the minds of most
Americans. Tales of battle and bounty pervade the folklore of privateering,
which has become a cherished, if often overlooked part of our shared heritage.
Legends were forged during the battle for American independence, and these men
were understandably glorified as part of the formation of our national identity.
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of these men were common
opportunists, if noteworthy naval warriors. The profit motive was the driving
force behind almost all of their expeditions, and a successful privateer could
easily become quite wealthy. In times of peace, these men would be common
pirates, pariahs of the maritime community. Commissioned in times of war, they
were respected entrepreneurs, serving their purses and their country, if only
incidentally the latter. However vulgar their motivation, the system of
privateering arose because...