Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Liam Riordan

Second Committee Member

Scott See

Third Committee Member

Stephen Miller


Privateering played an important role in the development of the Northeastern Borderlands, the area comprising New England and the Maritime Provinces. During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 privateering replaced trade as a form of communication in this region. When hostilities erupted between Great Britain and her former North American colonies in 1775, the rebellious colonies authorized privately armed vessels to seize British ships and created maritime courts to ensure that they followed the maritime law of nations. Although the rebellious colonies attempted to tie the individual self-interest of these non-state actors to their emerging national goals, the British counter-offensive in the wake of the rebel government’s alliance with France created spaces where privateers could pursue their own interests with little interference.

By 1779 the British occupied a series of outposts stretching from New York to Halifax and fitted out privateers of their own. As privateers on both sides tried to profit from the material imbalance created by the Revolutionary War, they adopted illicit practices. Some privateers traded with the enemy through pre-arranged captures. Others conducted raids on land contrary to their government’s instructions. Regardless of their nationality privateers pursued their own interests by engaging in piracy, stealing from prizes and trading with the enemy.

This dissertation employs a borderlands framework to explain how the pre-modern capitalistic endeavor of privateering shaped the transnational Northeastern Borderlands. As privateers engaged in both lawful and illicit acts they maintained the ties of culture and commerce that bound New England and the Maritime Provinces together. These practices continued during the War of 1812 when the U.S and Great Britain adopted the prewar trade policy of their enemy. When Great Britain opened licensed trade with the U.S., privateers from the Maritime Provinces began seizing traders licensed by their own government. Meanwhile the extension of the restrictive policy adopted during Jefferson’s Embargo convinced many U.S. privateers to trade with the enemy. Hence, privateering provides a means to examine the role of non-state actors and self-interest in state formation in a transnational region shared by a nascent republic and a global empire.