Marque and Reprisal

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Marque and Reprisal

A commission by which the head of a government authorizes a private ship to capture enemy vessels.

The authority to do such capturing is granted to private vessels in letters of marque and reprisal. In the technical sense, a letter of marque is permission to cross over the frontier into another country's territory in order to take a ship; a letter of reprisal authorizes taking the captured vessel to the home port of the capturer.

Since letters of marque and Reprisal allowed privately owned and operated vessels to carry out acts of war, the practice came to be known as privateering. Privateering was frequently encouraged from the period between 1692 to 1814, at which time weaker countries used privateers to hurt a stronger country in the way guerrilla warfare is currently used. Privateers operated concomitant to regular navies. Their main purpose was to annoy the enemy; however, an enemy's merchant vessels were often seized in retaliation for acts of hostility.

The system of privateering was subject to extensive abuses. In the absence of proper letters, a privateer was tantamount to a pirate. Piracy is subject to severe punishment throughout the world. Although privateers allegedly existed in order to support the defense of their sovereigns, they frequently acquired much personal wealth through their activities. In addition, since privateers were not subject to the same discipline as a regular navy, they yielded to the temptation to seize ships beyond the scope of their authority.

Such abuses, and new theories of naval warfare led civilized nations, in 1856, to sign an agreement outlawing privateering. The agreement does not prohibit a state from organizing a voluntary navy of private vessels, which are under the dominion and control of the state.

The U.S. Constitution provides that no state can grant letters of marque and reprisal. The federal government is not limited in this right by the Constitution; however, modern custom and treaties prevent it from granting the letters.


Admiralty and Maritime Law.

MARQUE AND REPRISAL. The name given to a commission granted by the supreme power of a state to a private person for the purpose of seizing the property of a foreign state or its subjects. Wheat. Law of Nations, 340. Vide Letters of Marque.

References in periodicals archive ?
A corollary of the power to issue letters of marque and reprisal was the power to regulate how letters of marque and reprisal could be used.
During the Constitutional Convention, the Framers made little mention of letters of marque and reprisal.
84) Presumably, the Framers understood the phrases "Letters of Marque and Reprisal" and "Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water" in section 8 of Article I to embody the meanings imputed to "reprisal," "letter of marque," and "prize" in American legal usage and international law circa 1787, colored especially by the Framer's own experiences with letters of marque and reprisal during the American Revolution and immediately afterwards under the Articles of Confederation.
Letters of marque and reprisal were mentioned twice in both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
Instead, the structure of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution indicates that the Framers viewed the issuance of letters of marque and reprisal as a supremacy issue rather than a separation of powers issue.
It is reasonable to believe that this view of letters of marque and reprisal from 1758 informed the understanding of the Framers of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
89) Jules Lobel, for example, quoted Story as saying that "the power to issue letters of marque and reprisal was 'plainly derived from that of making war'" and cited Blackstone for a similar proposition.
Even if one assumes for the sake of argument that "making" war under the Articles of Confederation is identical to "declaring" war under the Constitution, it is not apparent that the Constitution's grant to Congress of the power to issue letters of marque and reprisal is equivalent to the grant of all residual war powers.
The conventional wisdom about the Quasi War cases, and of the now-archaic words in the War Clause concerning letters of marque and reprisal, is incorrect.