Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 2

Shearjashub Bourne to John Adams

Oliver Whipple's Minutes of the Argument


The Resolve of 25 Nov. 1775, a response to George Washington's complaints about the lack of machinery for dealing with captures, was drafted by a committee of which JA was a member. See 3 JCC 357–358; 3 JA, Diary and Autobiography 346–349. It provided for the condemnation as prize of enemy military and transport vessels and cargo; set up a requirement that no privateer cruise without a commission from Congress; recommended that the states establish prize courts sitting with juries, and subject to certain venue provisions; provided for an appeal from such courts “in all cases;” and provided for the distribution of proceeds, confirming prior awards by General Washington. 3 JCC 373–375. The provision relied on here, as modified by a Resolution of 19 Dec. 1775, was,

“That all transport vessels in the same [i.e. British] 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, or any goods, wares, or merchandizes, for the use of such fleet and army, shall be liable to seizure, and, with their cargoes, shall be confiscated.” Id. at 437.

See Jameson, “The Predecessor of the Supreme Court,” in J. Franklin Jameson, ed., Essays in the Constitutional History of the United States 6–8 (Boston and N.Y., 1889). The Resolution of 23 March 1776, which authorized the fitting out of armed vessels, provided in pertinent part,

“That all ships and other vessels, their tackle, apparel, and furniture, and all goods, wares, and merchandizes, belonging to any inhabitant or inhabitants of Great Britain, taken on the high seas, or between high and low water mark, by any armed vessel fitted out by any private person or persons, and to whom commissions shall be granted, and being libelled and prosecuted in any court erected for the trial of maritime affairs, in any of these colonies, shall be deemed and adjudged to be lawful prize; and after deducting the wages of the crew of captured merchantmen shall be condemned to and for the use of the owner or owners, and the officers, marines, and mariners of such armed vessel, according to such rules and proportions as they shall agree on: Provided always, that this resolution shall not extend to any vessel bringing settlers arms, ammunition or warlike stores to and for the use of these colonies, or any of the inhabitants thereof, who are friends to the American cause, or to such warlike stores, or to the effects of such settlers.” 4 JCC 230–231.

Other resolutions provided for the distribution of proceeds of captures made by vessels of the United Colonies, or a single colony, or by land forces. Id. at 231–232. For JA's role in the passage of this resolve, see 2 JA, Diary and Autobiography  233 note 10; 3 id. at 371–375