Pirate code has significant influence on development of American democracy

Pirate organizations and piratical activities in the American history have exerted a strong influence on the formation of the country’s democratic system, said Marcus Rediker, a distinguished professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh, in a recent interview with People’s Daily.


From emphasizing the freedom and equality of each individual pirate to developing the earliest forms of representative democracy and the mechanism of checks and balances for better management, the operation mechanism of pirate organizations has promoted the emergence and evolution of the early American democratic system, Rediker explained.


Democracy is a concrete phenomenon that is constantly evolving. Each country’s democracy is rooted in its own history, culture and tradition.


There have been many theories about the formation of the American democratic system in the country’s academic circles in recent years, among which the ones focusing on the role of pirate code have attracted wide attention.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, many local people in Massachusetts chose the “career” as pirates. They would hold up passing merchant ships carrying gold, silver and other commodities in the Caribbean Sea in winter and in coastal waters around New England in summer.


The New England Pirate Museum located in Salem, Massachusetts houses different versions of pirate code in history, restored pirate ships and pirate treasures that have been unearthed.


In the 17th century, sea-robbers in the West Indies signed “articles of agreement” with one another, based on which the pirate code was formulated to regulate the operation of pirate organizations.


According to the pirate code, every man has equal title to an equal share of the fresh food and strong liquors after a successful robbery; the captain and quartermaster shall be elected by all; and the captain and quartermaster can receive two shares of a prize, other officers one and a quarter to one and a half shares, and the rest one share each.


Bartholomew Roberts, a famous pirate from Wales, plundered over 400 ships in his life. The 11-article pirate code he created has been the most widely circulated one among all versions of such documents.


The pirate code in the 18th century showed the earliest signs of “the right to vote” “checks and balances” “representative democracy” and “spoils system”, which can be considered as the embryo of American democracy, as some American experts and scholars pointed out.


An article published on the website of History News Network of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, George Washington University, analyzed the relations between pirate organizations and the American democratic system.


Pirates made a significant contribution to the development of American democracy, according to the article.


“The first rule of one particular pirate code reads, ‘Every man has a vote in affairs of moment,’ securing, at the start, a man’s right to participate in the selection of the captain and other officials,” said the article.


Besides, pirate organizations had a system of checks and balances and booty distribution, which, though radical for its time, formed a balance of order among a group of pirates, according to the article.


“Pirates, in effect, were pioneers in democracy,” said the article.


Pirate governance created sufficient order and cooperation to make pirates one of the most sophisticated and successful criminal organizations in history, said Peter Leeson, an economics professor at the George Mason University in the U.S., in his published paper titled “The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization”.


A sample of 700 pirates active in the Caribbean between 1715 and 1725 reveals that over a half of these pirates were English and American, according to the paper. To effectively organize their banditry, pirates needed mechanisms to prevent internal predation, minimize crew conflict, and maximize piratical profit. By devising election system, piratical checks and balances and spoils system, they guaranteed order on ships and improved the efficiency of piracy, suggested the paper.


Leeson believes that the systems employed in pirate governance are very similar to the modern democratic political system of the U.S.


Although there is no definite evidence that the American democratic system has its origins in the pirate code, it can be inferred from the timeline and extremely high similarity of relevant content that the founding fathers of the U.S. used the democracy system of checks and balances from pirate organizations when creating the U.S. government, Leeson said in an interview with People’s Daily.


James Madison and other founding fathers of the U.S. may have borrowed the institutional design in pirate code, which is why democratic decentralization was mentioned in the Federalist Papers, Leeson said, adding that from this perspective, pirates were the initiator of the democratic governance system of the U.S.


The pirate code has exerted a direct influence on the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the institutional design of the early American government; piratical activities were of great significance for the prosperity of then British colonies in the U.S., laying economic foundation to some extent for America’s independence from Britain, according to an academic paper titled “Piracy’s Influence in the Atlantic World” collected by the University of Florida.