Letters of Marque and Reprisal

What if I told you that the U.S. Constitution offers a way for America to eliminate her enemies – terrorists, pirates, hostile groups, drug cartels, and so forth – without engaging in disastrous, lengthy, and costly wars? The device I refer to is Congress’s authority to issue letters of marque and reprisal. A letter of marque and reprisal is essentially a declaration of war on an individual or group rather than on a nation. It is a contract issued by the U.S. government to allow private individuals or organizations to hunt down our nations enemies and/or seize their assets. It operates like a government-issued warrant against private, non-state enemies – a warrant that does not need to be executed by the U.S. military but which is fulfilled by private American citizens and groups.

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To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water” is one of the few powers delegated to Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. The very fact that this authority was included in the Constitution when the Founders were so careful about limiting Congress’s power is evidence enough of its importance. Our nation also has a long history of using letters of marque and reprisal. They were issued by Congress during the War for Independence, during our struggles with the Barbary Pirates, and all the way up through the Second World War. There is simply no reason why we should not be using them today to make America safe while keeping our nation out of disastrous, illegal wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On December 12, 1812, President James Madison signed a congressional letter of marque. It read:

BE IT KNOWN, That in pursuance of an act of congress, passed on the 26th day of June one thousand eight hundred and twelve, I have Commissioned, and by these presents do commission, the private armed Brig called the Prince Neufchatel of the burden of three hundred & Nineteen tons, or thereabouts, owned by John Ordronaux & Peter E. Trevall of the City & State of New York and Joseph Beylle of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania Mounting eighteen carriage guns, and navigated by one hundred & twenty nine men, hereby authorizing Nicholas Millin captain, and William Stetson lieutenant of the said Brig and the other officers and crew thereof, to subdue, seize, and take any armed or unarmed British vessel, public or private, which shall be found within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, or elsewhere on the high seas, or within the waters of the British dominions, and such captured vessel, with her apparel, guns, and appertenances, and the goods or effects which shall be found on board the same, together with all the british persons and others who shall be found acting on board, to bring within some port of the United States; and also to retake any vessel, goods, and effects of the people of the United States, which may have been captured by any British armed vessel, in order that proceedings may be had concerning such capture or recapture in due form of law, and as to right and justice shall appertain. The said Nicholas Millin is further authorized to detain, seize, and take all vessels and effects, to whomsoever belonging, which shall be liabel thereto according to the law of nations and the rights of the United States as a power at war, and to bring the same within some port of the United States, in order that due proceedings may be had thereon. This commission to continue in force during the pleasure of the president of the United States for the time being.”

Notice what letters of marque and reprisal can do. They can authorize individuals – in this case, a private ship crew – to act with the full authority of the U.S. government in destroying our enemies. Captain Millin and his crew were authorized under this grant of power to “subdue, seize, and take” any British ship and their assets. In this case, the letter was issued during wartime. But it equally applies to peacetime – or whenever our sworn enemies threaten us.

To really comprehend what letters of marque and reprisals are all about, I quote from several excellent sources.

In an essay titled “Resurrecting Letters of Marque and Reprisal to Address Modern Threats,” Navy Commander Jonathan L. Still wrote:

[T]he origin of the “letter of marque and reprisal” stems from its use in time of peace. Although often synonymous with privateering because they were typically issued to privateers, the concept of such letters is historically distinct from privateering. The traditional law of marque allowed a private citizen to cross borders, while reprisal referred to the act of seeking restitution for a perceived slight. Thus letters of marque and reprisal licensed private citizens of one state to take recompense from the citizens of another for a legally recognized grievance. . . .

Evidence of the Framers’ intent to create a strong national government can be seen in the Constitution’s provisions, as well as its preamble, which states that it was established to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” The fact that the Congress’ power to grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal has never been revoked, despite international treaties against privateering, should be considered indicative of the nation’s collective desire to ensure that the United States remains adaptive to developments in the global environment and the ever-changing international relations framework. The Framers understood that the U.S. must always have a means to protect itself against foreign threats and ensure economic vitality if it is to remain the guarantor of American freedom and prosperity.

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As the U.S. and the international community contemplate a host of difficult security concerns modern extraterritorial threats such as piracy, terrorism, and cyber exploitation, U.S. policymakers and legal scholars should contemplate the conceptual merit of letters of marque and reprisal as a means of combating these threats short of “war.””

In a 2013 article, Joe Wolverton, II provided insight into the present topic. He spoke of our illegitimate War on Terror and the constitutional issues of invading nations without a declaration of war to supposedly fight terrorists. He wrote:

First, violating the Constitution is never an answer; neither is carrying out acts of war against non-belligerent nations who are — whether willingly or not — harboring those public enemies. . . .

Fortunately, there is a means of exposing suspected terrorists to justice, even when they are hiding out in nations that refuse to extradite them to the United States for that purpose.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution authorizes Congress to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal.”

This is a power that is rarely discussed and almost never exercised. . . .

Consecutive presidents have explained that since 9/11 we face a “new kind of enemy.” Isn’t this type of supranational foe exactly the kind that could be best fought using the immense and elastic power of issuing letters of marque and reprisal? . . . .

The irrefutable fact remains, however, that the issuing of letters of marque and reprisal is an effective and available constitutional alternative to the launching of missiles from drones or “boots on the ground” inside the borders of foreign countries with whom we are not at war.”

Wolverton also cited the text of letters of marque and reprisal granted by Congress in 1781. It reads:

You may by force of arms attack, subdue, and seize all ships, vessels and goods, belonging to the King or Crown of Great Britain, or to his subjects, or others inhabiting within any of the territories or possessions of the aforesaid King of Great Britain, on the high seas, or between high-water and low-water marks. And you may also annoy the enemy by all means in your power, by land as well as by water, taking care not to infringe or violate the laws of nations, or laws of neutrality.”

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Writing for The Federalist, Georgi Boorman similarly explained:

The U.S. military wears a heavy boot, but at the moment it does nothing more than cast a shadow over the growing terrorist threat. However, the U.S. Constitution allows another way for citizens to combat threats to life or property: a letter of marque.

Letters of marque are expressly granted in the Constitution . . . Letters of marque are essentially permits for private individuals to use force against enemies of the state on its behalf. In the early eighteenth century, these letters began to function as a way to supplement national navies. “Privateers” were given letters of marque permitting them to capture and plunder enemy ships; an admiralty court adjudicated on the legality of the capture. . . .

Pulled out from under a dozen other tactics and strategies, dusted off, and cast onto the table where “war” and “diplomacy” are the only options on display, letters of marque could be the centuries-old concept that aids a modern armed-forces effort. . . .

One can think of letters of marque as an old solution fashioned anew to meet the unique challenges of an ideologically motivated organization bent on destroying the West and any regions touched by its influence.”

Finally, in an article about the rising threat of piracy, Bob Confer wrote:

It’s a little-known fact that the Constitution allows Congress to essentially deputize private individuals to protect American interests on international waters . . . It is those letters [of marque and reprisal], contracts of sort, which would authorize a seafarer to take the law into his own hands and engage the pirates in gun play when threatened and take those pirates into custody, a citizen’s arrest as it were. Without such legal authorization, the mariner — who was only trying to protect the safety of crew and cargo — could theoretically be looked at as a pirate under international law. . . .

One congressman, who is one of the very few who truly comprehends and respects the wonders of the Constitution, sees merit behind dusting off this piece of America’s foundation. Dr. Ron Paul has been a consistent proponent of the letters, demanding their reintroduction through the years. He famously called for them in 2002 in response to the 9/11 terror attacks (which would have tempered some of the unconstitutional trappings of the USA PATRIOT Act) and again following this past spring’s Somali standoff.

It’s a little disconcerting that Congressman Paul’s commonsense — and legal — ideas have fallen on deaf ears and that shippers haven’t been granted their privilege of protection. Despite the logic behind such a faith in force — and the natural right to self-defense that far outweighs the legal privilege — the more “politically correct” officials of the day have opted to ignore letters of marque and reprisal and rely instead on our naval forces.”

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It was Congressman Ron Paul whom I first heard talk about letters of marque and reprisal in terms of combating terrorists. In October 2001, Congressman Paul authored a bill “to commission, under officially issued letters of marque and reprisal, so many of privately armed and equipped persons and entities as, in his judgment, the service may require . . . to employ all means reasonably necessary to seize outside the geographic boundaries of the United States and its territories” Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators. This method would have been vastly preferable to sending thousands of troops to Afghanistan, bombing innocent villages, occupying a sovereign nation, making ourselves a world pariah, and wasting trillions of dollars. Also, as a point of historical fact, the Taliban offered to hunt down Osama bin Laden if the U.S. government could provide evidence that he was behind the 9/11 attacks. Of course, no such evidence exists and the Taliban’s offer was ignored in favor of launching the pre-planned “War on Terror.”

In today’s chaotic world with terrorists, pirates, and international enemies under every stone, would it not be wiser and more efficient to again issue letters of marque and reprisal to combat them? Instead of fighting against nations, we would fight against hostile individuals and organizations wherever they’re found. Instead of mobilizing our military and wasting trillions of dollars and spilling our blood all over the world, private citizens or private security forces would act on our behalf. Instead of senselessly invading a nation like Iraq, we could make targeted attacks on individuals like the terrorist Qasem Soleimani who was thankfully taken out earlier this week.

America has thousands of veterans – many of whom are unemployed and in need of work – who no doubt would sign up as privateers to hunt down our country’s enemies (indeed, there are already thousands of hired guns fighting for us in the Middle East). Their skill and expertise could be easily channeled into legitimate endeavors against our enemies rather than wasted in years-long occupations of sovereign nations following undeclared and costly wars. There would be many other patriotic Americans and organizations who would doubtless sign up for such missions. And would not these commissioned, targeted strikes by passionate patriots be preferable to large-scale wars that drag on for years and divide our Republic?

In my own personal conception, letters of marque and reprisal could be issued against wicked enemies of the United States like George Soros and the Rothschild clan. These are sworn enemies of America who use their billions to bring us to our knees and who are in the process of transforming us into a communistic banana republic. Just because they don’t wield weapons, but instead use the very real weapons of finance, credit, media propaganda, and so forth, does not diminish their danger to our People. Granting commissions to willing and able Americans to hunt down and either eliminate or capture these miscreants could be nothing but a good thing for our country.

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Ladies and gentlemen, the Constitution is an inspired document. It was given to our nation by God Almighty. It was crafted under His inspiration by good, honorable, and wise men. Congress’s power to grant letters of marque and reprisal to safeguard our nation while avoiding the unnecessary dangers of full-scale war is a godsend. It is a device that we must start using again. If we truly love America, we should use the Constitution’s natural methods to defend and protect her. Issuing letters of marque and reprisal is one tried-and-tested way of deterring America’s enemies, saving American lives, and protecting the Republic.

Zack Strong,

January 4, 2019

Please consider reading and signing my petition to Congress on letters of marque and reprisal:

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/resurrect-letters-marque-and-reprisal-combat-americas-enemies

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