In the 18th century, Britain’s Royal Navy may have been defined by rum, sodomy, and the lash, but the sailors often thought that there was too little rum and way too much lash. According to a study by a George Mason University economist, the navy’s cruelty and authoritarianism drove sailors to join pirate ships—by 1716, the pirate population was one-fifth that of the British navy. The pirates devised a separation- of-powers system to ensure that their new captains treated them better. They elected a quartermaster from within their ranks to mete out provisions and booty, and captains got only an equal share. Common sailors could barge into a captain’s quarters, “swear at him, seize a part of his Victuals and Drink.” Only in battle did pirate captains wield total authority, allowing their crews to profit from the quick decisions a unitary executive could provide. The sailors, before setting out, would agree on guidelines—known as the “Custom of the Coast” or “Jamaica Discipline—for settling disputes, doling out punishment, and deciding living arrangements. (Some ships even had strict no-smoking policies.) The author notes that the separation of powers on pirate ships slightly predates England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution, and he suggests that the American system of checks and balances appears to have a little Captain Morgan in it.
Who knew we had the Founding Fathers and pirates to thank for our democracy?