In the course of doing interviews on The Invisible Hook over the last several weeks I’ve had a number of people ask me if I thought America’s Founding Fathers might have been influenced by early 18th-century pirates in framing the United States government.
Before you laugh, let me explain . . .
In the book I analyze early 18th-century pirates’ system of social organization, the basic principles of which are, in several important respects, I suggest quite similar to those of our own.
The centerpiece of pirate governance was a system of constitutional democracy. Before launching a plundering expedition, each crew drew up a written document that stipulated the rules that would govern its members while the pirates remained together. These “articles” also empowered the chief pirate officer--the quartermaster--to enforce the rules, administer proscribed punishments, divide the booty, and so forth. Critically, by making many of these terms explicit, pirate constitutions not only empowered the quartermaster in these duties but also constrained him. He was not free divide plunder anyway he saw fit, for example, arbitrarily bestow social insurance payments on pirates he liked (pirates had an early system of workers' comp), or punish lawbreakers willy-nilly.
In addition to such “constitutional checks” on the quartermaster, pirates also exerted democratic checks on his behavior. Pirates popularly elected the quartermaster and could, and did, democratically remove quartermasters who overstepped their bounds or otherwise acted in ways at odds with the other crewmembers’ interest.
The quartermaster also exercised his authority within the context of a system of piratical separation of powers. While the quartermaster wielded command in cases such as those described above, he wielded no command in times of conflict with potential prizes. Authority in these cases fell to the captain, the other central pirate officer, who pirates also democratically elected and deposed. Notably, pirates’ democratic mechanism for this and other purposes was also established in their constitutions.
The chief pirate officers--the captain and quartermaster--not only had countervailing authorities, they also competed with one another. When pirates deposed an ineffective or otherwise unsuitable captain from command, they could, and sometimes did, elect the quartermaster to this post in his place.
Further, in some cases pirate crewmembers exercised a kind of “judicial review” authority. Where their articles were unclear or silent on certain matters, pirates gathered to interpret and apply the ship’s constitution to the case at hand.
Many of the fundamental features of pirate’s governance system should sound familiar to those acquainted with America’s governance system. They’re not the same, of course. But several of the basic institutions appear to be there, albeit in more rudimentary form.
Perhaps even more strikingly, the basic reason behind pirates’ system of checks and balances is fundamentally the same reasoning behind our system of checks of balances: to simultaneously empower and constrain those we endow with the authority to rule over us.
To keep their criminal enterprise from breaking down, pirates needed “leaders” who could maintain order among them and make certain decisions on behalf of the whole (such as during battle), but could also be prevented from abusing the power crewmembers vested in their hands for this purpose. Pirates were especially wary of this possibility, most of them having formerly sailed as legitimate sailors under the autocratic, and thus often abused, authority of merchant ship captains.
As one pirate put it, “Most of them having suffered formerly from the ill-treatment of Officers, provided thus carefully against any such Evil now they had the choice in themselves . . . for the due Execution thereof they constituted other Officers besides the Captain; so very industrious were they to avoid putting too much Power into the hands of one Man.”
Pirates confronted essentially the same dilemma in setting up their system of governance that James Madison famously described in Federalist 51. As Madison put it, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Madison’s solution to this dilemma was constitutional democracy. “A dependence on the people,” Madison argued, “is no doubt, the primary control on the government.” “[B]ut,” he continued, “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” “[T]he constant aim is to divide and arrange several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other—that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”
This was pirates’ solution as well--but they forged it more than half a century before Madison put pen to paper. Pirates, of course, weren’t the first to invoke this solution. And there’s good reason to think that some of the legitimate world’s early experiences with democracy, separated powers, and so on, may have influenced pirates’ system of governance.
But could the direction of influence have also run the other direction? This is the question I began with. And while, unsurprisingly, I’ve yet to come across direct evidence that any of our Founding Fathers looked to pirate governance in forging America’s system of government, it might be too hasty to totally dismiss this suggestion as well.
I did a quick look to see if there might be any evidence that any of the Founders were even aware of pirates’ governance regime . . . .
And there is. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of both of the two most important late 17th-century and early 18th-century books that describe pirate governance, Alexander Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America, and Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates.
Does this prove that pirates’ constitutional democracy influenced Jefferson? Of course not. For one thing, Jefferson had many books in his personal library. That doesn’t mean all of them played a role in his thinking about American government. Further, I don’t know when Jefferson acquired these books. His copies were published (in 1774) before the Declaration of Independence; but that doesn’t tell us when Jefferson bought or read them.
But, at least in principle, it does suggest TJ could have “had a little captain in him.” The mere prospect is tantalizing enough for me . . .