Revolution broke out in earnest in Texas in October 1835 with the seizure of the Mexican cannon at Gonzales and the beginning of the Siege of Bexar. As these events unfolded, the Consultation, the first revolutionary assembly of Texas, came together in San Felipe on November 3, 1835. One of its first acts was to consider the protection of the Texas coast. It was impossible to create a Navy overnight, so the Texans adopted the time-honored practice of issuing letters of marque and reprisal to privateers. These privately owned war ships would protect the coast, harass Mexican shipping, and bring in prizes that could be auctioned off, with part of the proceeds going into the public treasury.
The steamship Yellow Stone
Prints and Photographs Collection,
Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1941/012-1.
Texas issued a total of six letters of marque to privateers, including the San Felipe, the William Robbins, the Terrible, the Thomas Toby, the Flash, and the Ocean. Flying the "1824" Texas Revolutionary flag, these ships not only patrolled the Gulf, but also pursued Mexican shipping on the high seas. The Thomas Toby was the outstanding privateer of the group, capturing several Mexican vessels and bringing them back to be adjudicated and their contents sold. Overall, though, the privateering effort was disappointing for Texas. Mexican shipping was not considered rich trade, so relatively few privateers were willing to take the risk.
What are letters of marque and reprisal?
Privateers were privately owned war ships commissioned by a belligerent nation to carry on naval warfare. The ships were given permission to prey upon the enemy, with any booty captured to be divided among the government, the ship owner, and the crew. The commissions were called letters of marque and reprisal. Because their activities were committed under the rule of law, privateers were sometimes called "gentleman pirates."
Letters of marque and reprisal have been issued since the thirteenth century. The word "marque" comes from the French word for border, giving the holder permission to cross the border; "reprisal" is used in the original sense of "taking prizes." The purpose of the letters was to augment a nation's navy, creating a force which could pillage the enemy at no cost to public funds. The privateers had to bring their prizes to an Admiralty Court so that the booty could be legally divided, and there were heavy penalties for attacking the property of a neutral state. Often, privateers were also authorized to take hostages, who would be ransomed back to the enemy or held for leverage in a prisoner exchange.
When the American Revolution began, the rebelling colonies could lay claim to only 31 ships. The Continental Congress commissioned more than 1600 privateers, which captured more than 2000 enemy vessels and 16,000 enemy combatants. The privateers suffered heavy losses themselves, and at least 11,000 of them perished due to maltreatment as British prisoners of war.
The power to grant letters of marque was given to the federal government in the Constitution of the United States in Article 1, Section 8. Such letters were issued regularly in the early years of the United States, particularly during the War of 1812. Privateering was ended by international law in 1856 with the signing of the Declaration of Paris treaty by the major naval powers. The United States, not yet a power, declined to be party to the treaty but observed the end of privateering in practice. During the Civil War, the Confederacy issued 99 letters of marque (the most famous Southern privateer being the fictional Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind).
Since Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution still stands, some have suggested that the concept of the letter of marque and reprisal could be revived as a weapon against terrorists. Since September 11, 2001, several bills have been introduced in Congress that would allow the State Department to issue letters of marque and reprisal to private individuals to hunt down, attack, and seize assets from terrorists, but none have made it out of committee.