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Pirates, Gun Battles & The Constitution

University of Texas San Antonio

Did piracy on the high seas play a role in developing the U.S. constitution and our system of courts? This year’s speaker at the Constitution Day celebration at the University of West Florida says aye. Now, to be sure, the annual UWF Constitution Day lecture usually doesn’t involve pirates and mutiny and privateers, but Dr. Matthew Brogdon, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a UWF alum says he thought "Impressment, Mutiny, and the Seafaring Origins of the Federal Courts" made for a snappy title.

Dr. Brogdon is this year’s guest speaker at the annual event on the UWF campus. He says he’s going to tell a story about an important event in American history that doesn’t appear in many history books. It involves those state sanctioned pirates called privateers. "Everyone has probably heard something about privateers in the American revolution, which would normally be private vessels outfitted and authorized by the state to go out and capture enemy vessels, especially to harass British merchant shipping. The idea was that a crew could capture a British vessel and tow it into an American port, and if they could successfully do that they could claim the ship as prize."

This could be a very lucrative operation, but could also open the country up to conflicts; not only with other nations, but with the federal government and the states. Dr. Brogdon talks about one dispute that involved the state of Pennsylvania. "The way this worked at the time is people would capture a vessel, they'd tow it into a state port and a state court would condemn the vessel and award the prize to the privateers that captured it. But congress, recognizing that this could create a problem, had created first a committee in congress, then a separate appellate court. This is really the first federal court in our history, the first court on a national level." Brogdon says these courts had the power to overturn the decisions of the state courts. "In this particular case there was this daring adventurer named Gideon Olmstead, who had been engaged as a privateer during the revolution and, a couple of years in, he winds up getting captured by the British in the Caribbean." 

Now there is a lot more to this story including cannon fire and gun battles but we can save that all for the Dr. Brogdon's lecture. The important part is the creation of those inferior federal courts, meaning those below the Supreme Court. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the founders would use these stories to defend the power and existence of these inferior federal courts.

Dr. Brogdon has written extensively about U.S. history and the origins of our institutions. And he’ll be reviewing a bit of his own history during his visit. He earned his BA and MA in Political Science at the University of West Florida. "I'm very happy to be coming back to my alma mater too. It's a pleasure to come back and a real treat to come back and talk to students sitting where I sat, and see how UWF has developed and grown."

The name of Dr. Matthew Brogdon’s Constitution Day lecture is "Impressment, Mutiny, and the Seafaring Origins of the Federal Courts". It will be held in the UWF Conference Center Ballroom Friday, September 15 at noon.