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Honor of the Flag: Privateers and American National Identity Open Access

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Recently, there has been an influx of scholarship that primarily focuses on the economic motivations and/or effects of privateering. In this way, privateers become exceedingly one-dimensional characters in American history. This thesis attempts to present privateers in a new light by highlighting the evolution of privateering as well as identifying factors other than profit that motivated and enticed privateers to go to sea.The British tradition of privateering began during the Elizabethan era but was less organized and controlled than the privateering of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The privateers of this period were more similar to pirates and piracy than later generations of privateers. As the enterprise progressed and British privateering moved to the American colonies, it became slightly more structured and centralized. Despite these changes and progression away from piracy, profit (and occasionally revenge) remained the driving motivation. Additionally, localism and self-interest remained predominant, meaning that nationalism or national identity rarely inspired sailors to join privateering vessels. Although colonial privateering existed during the mid-eighteenth century, American privateering officially began during the American Revolution. However, the Americans did not stray too far from the privateering precedent set by the British and their colonists during the imperial wars of the seventeenth century. In accordance with British tradition, privateering during the Revolution was driven by localism and profits perpetuating the idea of a disjointed United States. The ratification of the Constitution in 1787 not only centralized privateering in the United States but also led to the slow emergence of an American national identity. American national identity and privateering evolved together during the War of 1812 as privateers acted in defense of their country against British warships. American newspapers sensationalized their exploits, creating new national heroes behind whom the country united. As such, American privateering during the War of 1812 played a pivotal role in the development of a true American national identity. This national identity embraced the ideals outlined in the Constitution, a collective memory of the American Revolution, and a sense of unity that supplanted the localism predominant in the previous generation.

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