On July 3, 1776, the Continental Congress authorized privateering on the high seas. Essentially, any private citizen who obtained a Commission of Marque and Reprisal would be permitted to capture British ships. A common warfare tactic since the Middle Ages, the intent of the act was to weaken the enemy at sea while trading confiscated goods to support the troops. Once captured, the enemy’s ship (known as a “prize”) would be brought to a designated port where the goods would be collected. Privateers would then return to sea to continue cruising until they captured their next ship. Privateers, a term for private citizens who took part in Marque and Reprisal, became a necessity for the ongoing support of the American Troops.
The Continental Congress issued a set of instructions to be used by all privateers. Issued by John Hancock, the rules complement the Commission of Marque and Reprisal. In Congress, Wednesday. April 3, 1776.: Instructions to the commanders of private ships or vessels of war, SY1776 no.9b, The New-York Historical Society.
Gustavus Conyngham was just one of the many men who would join the effort to collect supplies for the Continental Troops. Born in Ireland, Conyngham settled in Philadelphia with the classic tale of wanting to start a better life in the British colonies. Growing up, he developed a passion for the ocean and learned the ways of seafaring. Eventually being charged with a ship, he took up the patriotic cause and ventured to Europe to collect supplies for the troops during the onset of the American Revolution. It was during this trip that he befriended Benjamin Franklin and was able to obtain a commission from Congress, appointing him Captain of the Surprise. Almost immediately, Conyngham proved to be a very skilled privateer and captured his first ship just days after receiving his commission. Capturing an average of one ship every three days, he was soon well known to both the British and the Americans.
Gustavus Conyngham (c. 1747-1819). Naval History Society Collection, MS 439, The New-York Historical Society.
Of course, the British had a vastly different view of Conyngham than did the Americans. While General Washington and Benjamin Franklin continued to support Conyngham, the British sought to arrest him for treason. After capturing the British vessel Joseph, Conyngham made the mistake of bringing the prize to a French port. In 1777, the French had not yet declared war on Great Britain and were obligated by treaty to report the ship to British authorities. This led to Conyngham’s first arrest and the confiscation of his papers. Franklin was able to get him released from the French prison, though that was only the first of Conyngham’s many arrests and escapes during the war.
His success as a captain continued to bring him support from Franklin, but King George III wished to see Conyngham hanged. This made him a prime target, and led to his ultimate capture in 1779. Kept in chains and under guard, it was somewhat short of a miracle that he didn’t hang, thanks to George Washington’s interference. In 1780, he was able to return home to Philadelphia in a prisoner exchange. Unfortunately, he would spend the upcoming years fighting Congress for remuneration.
Conyngham was entitled to both payment and a share of the prizes he captured at sea, but he was required to produce evidence of his commission. Having had his papers confiscated in 1777, a fight to have his case heard by Congress ensued for several years. With Franklin’s death in 1790, he was unable to secure a strong witness and became obsessed with trying to locate his commission. A voyage to Europe failed to bring up any trace of the document. He soon turned to Alexander Hamilton for help, but his case was turned down by Congress due to a lack of evidence. Though he held a grudge against the government, he would continue to serve his country. He was elected to the Common Council of Philadelphia, and assisted in the defense of the city during the War of 1812. A true fighter, he never gave up his own personal fight over his commission, which continued on until his death in 1819.
The flag flown by Gustavus Conyngham aboard his ships. Naval History Society Collection, MS 439, The New-York Historical Society.
It seems unfair to say that Conyngham’s attempt to locate his commission was a failure. With no record of where the document ended up and the mayhem of the French Revolution, it was likely that the document had simply been destroyed. Or perhaps Conyngham was right to think the document was laying around in Europe somewhere?
Towards the end of the 19th century, John Barnes, a naval historian and avid collector of Revolutionary War documents, was on a trip to Paris when he came across an advertisement for a print at the M. Charavay print shop for the small price of 10 Francs:
143 Hancock (John), famous American statesman, governor of Massachusetts, signer of the Declaration of Independence- Signature piece as president of Congress; Baltimore, March 1 1777, 1 p. in-fol. Obl. Rare. Naval History Collection, MS 439, The New-York Historical Society.
Barnes described the discovery as “facts being stranger than fiction.” Upon receiving the document, he recognized it as Gustavus Conyngham’s lost commission. It continues to be a mystery how the document made its way to the M. Charavay print shop, and how it survived the intervening years after its confiscation in 1777. As Barnes would write in his book With the Flag in the Channel (1902), “That bold Gustavus Conyngham was badly treated by his country and hardly handled by Fate the reader can perceive. He had helped the cause in the way it most needed help, but, notwithstanding, unrewarded, the man who flew the flag in the Channel went broken-hearted to his grave, and now out of the past too late, comes the authentic proof of his cause and asseverations.”
The lost commission, as signed by John Hancock on March 1, 1777. Naval History Society Collection, MS 439, The New-York Historical Society.
In 1925, the document made its way to the New-York Historical Society as part of the Naval History Society Collection. Although it seems almost cruel that the document would be found years after Conyngham’s death, it proves just how interesting a single document’s history can be. As Barnes noted in his publication, “The world is a small one and strange things happen in it, can be the only comment.”
This post is by Erin Weinman, Manuscript Reference Librarian.