HANCOCK, John (1737-1793), Signer (Massachusetts). Document signed ("John Hancock," with elegant flourish) as President of the Continental Congress, [Philadelphia: printed by John Dunlap], 3 April 1776. 1 page, small 4to, left-hand and bottom edges with deckle edges. In fine, fresh condition. Evans, American Bibliography, 15138.
FROM THE PRINTER OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. Three months later, John Dunlap would print the folio broadside of the Declaration of Independence. The present document from the same press is boldly headed "In Congress," and consists of a resolution of Congress stipulating that "blank commissions for private Ships of War, and Letters of Marque and Reprisal, signed by the President [Hancock], be sent to the General Assemblies, Conventions, and Councils or Committees of Safety of the United Colonies...." The local governments, then, can fill out the forms and deliver them to "the Persons intending to fit out such private Ships of War for making Captures of British Vessels and Cargoes...." The form mentioned is the well-known "Instructions to the Commanders of Private Ships or Vessels of War," spelling out regulations for what amounted to licensed piracy against the British.
Privateering had a long tradition among the Americans, but as Boatner notes, this "drained off resources of manpower and materials" from the regular Navy. "A privateer's mission was where the prize money lay..." The privateers "were little more than licensed pirates who contributed little to the American cause -- since prizes were sold to the highest bidder, often in Europe, the privateersmen pocketed the money, and the cargoes often were bought back by the British -- still the privateers incurred great risks and figured in some heroic fights" (Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, p.896-7).