Act of the Continental Congress authorizing
the capture and confiscation of all British armed vessels, transports,
and supply ships, and directing the issuing of commissions to
captains of cruisers and privateers, 25 November 1775.
"The Congress resumed the report of the Committee on General Washington's letter, and the same being debated by paragraphs, was agreed to as follows:
The Committee to whom so much of the letter from General Washington to the president dated the 8th Instant as relates to the disposal of the vessels and cargoes belonging to the enemy, which shall fall into the hands of or be taken by the inhabitants of the united colonies and so much of the report of the committee of Congress, which lately went to the Camp at Cambridge as related to that subject, were referred, have examined the matter thereof and directed the same, as it appears to them, together with the resolutions of the Committee thereupon to be reported as followeth.
Whereas, it appears to your Committee from undoubted information, that many vessels which had cleared at the respective custom houses in these colonies, agreeable to the regulations established by acts of the British parliament, have in a lawless manner, without even a semblance of just authority, been seized by his majesty's ships of war, and carried into the harbour of Boston and other ports, where they have been riffled of their cargoes, by orders of his majesty's naval and military officers, there commanding, without the said vessels having been proceeded against by any form of trial and without the charge of having offended against any law.
It further appears to your Committee that orders have been issued in his majesty's name, to the commanders of his ships of war, "to proceed as in the case of actual rebellion against such of the sea port towns and places being accessible to the king's ships, in which any troops shall be raised or military works erected," under colour of which said orders, the commanders of his majesty's ships of war, have already burned and destroyed the flourishing and populous town of Falmouth, and have fired upon and much injured several other towns within the United Colonies, and dispersed at a late season of the year, hundreds of helpless women and children, with a savage hope that those may perish under the approaching rigours of the season, who may chance to escape destruction from fire and sword, a mode of warfare long exploded amongst civilized nations.
It also appears to your Committee, that the good people of these colonies, sensibly affected by the destruction of their property, and other unprovoked injuries, have at last determined to prevent as much as possible a repetition thereof, and to procure some reparation for the same, by fitting out armed vessels and ships of force. In the execution of which commendable designs, it is possible that those who have not been instrumental in the unwarrantable violences abovementioned may suffer, unless some laws be made to regulate, and tribunals erected competent to determine the propriety of captures: Thereupon your Committee came to the following resolutions:
1. That all such ships of war, frigates, sloops, cutters, and armed vessels as are or shall be employed in the present cruel and unjust war against the United Colonies, and shall fall into the hands of, or be taken by the inhabitants thereof, be seized and forfeited to, and for the purposes hereinafter mentioned.
2. That all transport vessels in the same service, having on board any troops, arms, ammunition, cloathing, provisions, or military or naval stores, of what kind soever, and all vessels to whomsoever belonging, that shall be employed in carrying provisions or other necessaries to the British army or armies, or navy, that now are or shall hereafter be within any of the United Colonies, shall be liable to seizure, but that the said cargoes only be liable to forfeiture and confiscation, unless the said vessels so employed belong to an inhabitant or inhabitants of these United Colonies; in which case the said vessel or vessels, together with her or their cargo, shall be liable to confiscation.
3. That no master or commander of any vessel shall be intitled to cruize for, or make prize of any vessel or cargo before he shall have obtained a commission from the Congress, or from such person or persons as shall be for that purpose appointed in some one of the United Colonies.
4. That it be and is hereby recommended to the several legislatures in the United Colonies, as soon as possible, to erect courts of Justice, or give jurisdiction to the courts now in being for the purpose of determining concerning the captures to be made as aforesaid, and to provide that all trials in such case be had by a jury under such qualifications, as to the respective legislatures shall seem expedient.
5. That all prosecutions shall be commenced in the court of that colony in which the captures shall be made, but if no such court be at that time erected in the said colony, or if the capture be made on open sea, then the prosecution shall be in the court of such colony as the captor may find most convenient, provided that nothing contained in this resolution shall be construed so as to enable the captor to remove his prize from any colony competent to determine concerning the seizure, after he shall have carried the vessel so seized within any harbour of the same.
6. That in all cases an appeal shall be allowed to Congress, or such person or persons as they shall appoint for the trial of appeals, provided the appeal be demanded within five days after definitive sentence, and such appeal be lodged with the secretary of Congress within forty days afterwards, and provided the party appealing shall give security to prosecute the said appeal to effect, and in case of the death of the secretary during the recess of Congress, then the said appeal to be lodged in Congress within 20 days after the meeting thereof.
7. That when any vessel or vessels shall be fitted out at the expense of any private person or persons, then the captures made shall be to the use of the owner or owners of the said vessel or vessels; that where the vessels employed in the capture shall be fitted out at the expence of any of the United Colonies, then one-third of the prize taken shall be to the use of the captors, and the remaining two-thirds to the use of the said colony, and where the vessels so employed shall be fitted out at the continental charge, then one-third shall go to the captors, and the remaining two- thirds to the use of the United Colonies; provided nevertheless, that if the capture be a vessel of war, then the captors shall be intitled to one-half of the value, and the remainder shall go to the colony or continent as the case may be, the necessary charges of condemnation of all prizes, being deducted before any distribution [is] made.
8. That the captures heretofore made by vessels fitted out at the continental charge were justifiable, and that the distribution of the captor's share of the prizes by General Washington, be confirmed, which is as follows:
That the share allowed to the captors be divided among the officers and men in the following proportions, viz:
Captain or commander, 6 shares.
First lieutenant, 5 do.
Second lieutenant, 4 do.
Surgeon, 4 do.
Master, 3 do.
Steward, 2 do.
Mate, 1 1/2 shares
Gunner, 1 1/2 do.
Boatswain, 1 1/2 do.
Gunner's mate, and serjeant, 1 1/2 do.
Privates, each 1 do."
Source: Journal of the Continental Congress, 25 November 1775, in William Bell Clarke, editor Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 2, pp.1131-1133. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1966.
23 November 1999