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John Hancock Signed 1776 Privateering Act
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The March 23, 1776 resolve of the Continental Congress to empower privateers, was a momentous step in the run-up to the Declaration of Independence. Congress had founded a Navy the previous fall, but had few funds to build it, and thus relied heavily on privateers to harass British shipping. “You may, by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to the Inhabitants of Great-Britain, on the High Seas.”

JOHN HANCOCK. Printed Document Signed as President of the Continental Congress. Instructions to the commanders of Private Ships of Vessels of War, which shall have Commissions or Letters of Marque and Reprisals, authorizing them to make Captures of British Vessels and Cargoes. [Philadelphia: printed by John Dunlap], dated in text April 3, 1776 [signed between April 3, 1776 and October, 1777]. 1 p., 8¾ x 13½ in. Framed to 24½ x 22½ in.

Inventory #23701.99       Price: $30,000

Partial Transcript                                   

“You may, by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to the Inhabitants of Great-Britain, on the High Seas ... You may, by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels whatsoever carrying Soldiers, Arms, Gun-powder, Ammunition, Provisions, or any other contraband Goods, to any of the British Armies or Ships of War employed against these Colonies. … You may, by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels whatsoever carrying Soldiers, Army, Gun-powder, Ammunition, Provisions, or any other contraband Goods, to any of the British Armies … employed against these Colonies. … If you, or any of your Officers or Crew shall, in cold Blood, kill or maim, or, by Torture or otherwise, cruelly, inhumanly, and contrary to common Usage and the Practice of civilized Nations in War, treat any Person or Persons surprized in the Ship or Vessel you shall take, the Offender shall be severely punished.”

Historical Background

The resolve to empower privateers, passed on March 23, 1776, was a momentous step in the run-up to the Declaration of Independence. Congress had founded a Navy the previous fall, but had little funds to construct ships and relied heavily on privateers. In ad hoc fashion, George Washington, commanding outside of Boston in late 1775, had authorized the outfitting of vessels by local merchants to attack British supply ships. There were complicated consequences to this decision: would privateers’ behavior fall under the dictates of international law, and would there be official admiralty courts to apportion prizes? If not protected in some way by Congress, would captured privateers be treated as pirates by the British Navy? As historian Robert Middelkauff states, as Congress “began the move toward declaring independence in 1776, it also moved toward a full-scale naval war,” apportioning funds, establishing a naval committee (later a marine committee), and framing regulations.

This resolve, signed by President of Congress John Hancock, goes part of the way in answering the difficulties encountered by Washington and his privateers in the first year of combat. Congress formalized the process by which commissions, or official Letters of Marque, were given to private merchants engaged in attacking enemy shipping. Such merchants now had to post bonds to ensure their proper conduct under the new regulations. According to the National Park Service, Congress granted roughly 1,700 Letters of Marque during the Revolution. “Nearly 800 vessels were commissioned as privateers and are credited with capturing or destroying about 600 British ships” and inflicting “about $18 million” in damage, a remarkable contribution to the American war effort.

John Hancock (1737-1793) was a Boston merchant prince and leader of the colonial resistance movement. Born in Braintree, he was adopted by his paternal uncle, Thomas Hancock, when his father died in 1742; under his uncle he learned the mercantile trade and was groomed for partnership. The Hancocks engaged in smuggling with the French West Indies in defiance of the Molasses Act. Named a Boston selectman in 1765, Hancock opposed the Stamp Act, and upon passage of the Townshend Duties in 1767, Hancock resolved to prohibit British customs officials from setting foot on his ships. He served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and, in 1774, was elected president of the revolutionary Provincial Congress. He and Samuel Adams were the targets of General Gage’s projected campaign against Lexington and Concord in April 1775. During the war, Hancock served as President of the Continental Congress, 1775-1777, and in that capacity signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. He was later a popular governor of Massachusetts (1780-1785, 1787-1793).

Condition
Very good. Professional restoration to approximately one-half inch at lower right not affecting text or signature. Moderately light but completely legible signature.

Historical References

http://www.nps.gov/revwar/about_the_revolution/privateers.html

Middelkauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, 1982, pp. 525-529.


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