TIME politics

5 Ways Pirate Ships Functioned as a True Democracy

Corsaire En Peril
Hulton Archive / Getty Images A pirate ship oencounters bad weather off the Barbary Coast of North Africa, circa 1650. An engraving by A. Maisonneuve after A. Humblot.

Pirates pioneered many of the features we associate with democracy

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Over time, the myth of the pirate has generated the image of a rugged, foul man with an elaborate hat, an eye patch, and a peg leg. The men of the tales are brutal and unforgiving, forcing captives to walk the plank, and mercilessly plundering ships at sea. What’s lost in this picture? That pirates made a significant contribution to the development of American democracy in the late eighteenth century. Pirate organizations predated any modern democratic government, having originated during the Golden Age of Piracy, from the 1650s to the 1730s. As an outgrowth of a diverse society that sought to maximize efficiency, Pirates formed relatively liberal, egalitarian orders based on elected officials and mutual trust.

Sailors often turned to piracy after long, abusive careers as either naval officers or ordinary seamen. In the eighteenth century, sailors were commonly beaten, overworked, and underpaid, and were often starved or diseased. Aboard ships sponsored by merchant companies, there was often a captain in place, hired by the original absentee owner. He was to ensure that the job was completed and was therefore granted absolute power, leading to a sort of dictatorship aboard ships. By centralizing power in the hands of the captain, ship owners could be sure they were minimizing pirate opportunism. Captains with unlimited and unchecked power were granted the right to punish in especially harsh manners, often leading to dissatisfaction and mutiny. One pirate testified, “Our Captain and his Mate used us Barbarously. We poor Men can’t have Justice done us. There is nothing said to our Commanders, let them never so much abuse us, and use us like Dogs.”

This abuse is what lay behind the pirates desire for a different social order. One historian notes that “the determined reorganization of space and privilege aboard the ship was crucial to the remaking of maritime social relations.”

1. The pirates created an order that allowed them to vote for their captains.

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. With this right in place, each crew elected a captain who was granted total power only during times of distress. The crew, rather than the captain, maintained the authority to determine where a voyage was headed, and whether to attack a particular ship or village.

2. The crew retained the right to depose their leader if they so chose.

The Pirate Council (the term used to referred to the members of the pirate crew) was responsible for removing officers from their positions, and then choosing new candidates to fill those positions. Pirate crews had the option of deposing any captain they deemed to be abusive or of exceptionally poor judgment. As one Dutch governor pointed out, “Every man has as much say as the captain.” A merchant captain, in utter disbelief of the system, testified, “there is so little Government and Subordination among [pirates], that they are, on Occasion, all Captains, all Leaders.”

3. There was a system of checks and balances.

A significant check on the captain’s power was the quartermaster, who served as a sort of prime minister, or chief of staff, to the captain. The quartermaster was also democratically elected, and held a variety of powers. He was the chief executive trusted with the job of distributing loot, and also served as the primary executor of punishment. He was an intermediary between the pirate crew and the captain. One captain explained, “The captain can undertake nothing which the quartermaster does not approve…. he speaks for and looks after the interest of the crew.” The quartermaster can be likened to a judge as well, as he played a vital role in arbitrating disputes among crew members. The establishment of this position reflected a desire to narrow the gap between captain and crew, as well as to check the power of the captain. The Council had the authority to make all decisions that had the greatest effect on the welfare of the ship, including electing officers. The Council served as a legislative body, and also often doubled as a court

4. They had a health care system.

A common aspect of pirate codes was injury compensation. Each pirate code made provisions for certain injuries and their monetary worth. For example, the loss of a right arm was worth six hundred pieces of eight, while a left arm was worth five hundred pieces of eight. The funds for these types of compensations were taken from a common pool of money, which remained as a portion of the booty captured on their expeditions.

5. Booty was distributed fairly according to skill and duty.

Pirate codes often described methods of payment and distribution of wealth at great length. These rules were necessary to establish a specific economic order and equality, which remained in place even among a band of thieves. Most pirate codes explicitly regulated distribution of plunder. Booty was divided according to skill and duty.The captain and the quartermaster received between one and a half and two shares, and all other positions of name received one and a quarter share each. Regular crew members received one share. This system was radical for its time, having created a payment system that decentralized wealth. It was precisely antithetical to the elaborate pay rank structures common among all other maritime ventures. Pirate historian Marcus Rediker suggests that this might have been “one of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources to be found anywhere in the early eighteenth century.”

Long before the American or French revolutions, pirates were living – more or less – according to the principles of freedom, liberty, and equality. Pirates, in effect, were pioneers in democracy. They developed a system of checks and balances, created a representative legislative body with certain reserved powers, and provided a common system of healthcare. Perhaps most importantly though, the Pirate Codes were revolutionary in their method of taking power away from any one man, and placing it in the hands of the majority.


Marcus Redkier, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004).

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Redkier, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000)

Peter T. Leeson, The Invisible Hook (Princeton, 2009).

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates(San Deigo, 1997).

Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates (London, 1724).

Rachel Rolnick is an intern at the History News Network.

TIME Foreign Policy

Netanyahu’s Approval Rating Rises in the U.S., Poll Finds

As voters back home in Israel are turned off by the prime minister seeking re-election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting more popular in the U.S., according to a new poll.

Netanyahu is viewed favorably by 45% of Americans, and only 24% view him unfavorably, according to a new Gallup poll. That’s up from a 35% favorable rating in a July 2012 poll.

In Israel, however, only 41% of likely voters said they view their Prime Minister favorably as his re-election effort enters its final weeks, according to a Times of Israel poll published in February.

In the U.S., Republicans were much more likely to say they support Netanyahu than their Democratic counterparts. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans said they viewed the Prime Minister favorably, compared with about a third of Democrats.

Read More: Netanyahu: Speech Not Intended to Disrespect Obama

Netanyahu has come under fire from White House officials for planning a trip to the U.S. without consulting the State Department or working through typical diplomatic channels. The visit, facilitated by House Speaker John Boehner, will feature a controversial speech to Congress in which the Prime Minister is expected to denounce a deal proposed by President Obama to work with Iran on nuclear power.

Despite the recent criticism from Democrats, Netanyahu’s favorability numbers are an improvement from three years ago, when only half of Republicans and a quarter of Democrats said they viewed him favorably.

The margin of error for the Gallup poll was 4%, while the Times of Israel poll had a 3.4% margin of error.

TIME politics

Here’s What Barbara Mikulski Told People Who Said She Didn’t Look Like a Senator

Barbara A. Mikulski
Terry Ashe—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski speaking during a Senate Labor Committee hearing in 1987

In her winning 1986 campaign, the Maryland Democrat spoke out against 'code words' that held people back

When Barbara Mikulski — the 78-year-old Maryland Democrat and longest serving woman in Congress, who announced Monday that she will retire in 2016 — ran for Senate in 1986, some people told her she didn’t look like a Senator.

Though she had already spent a decade in Congress, and though she had gotten her start as a community organizer and councilwoman in Baltimore, and though her run for Senate was one of three national contests that year in which both major candidates were women, gender and appearance still played into coverage of the race.

But, as Mikulski made clear, conversation about whether she or any of the other female candidates looked like voters’ ideas of what a politician should be was just a way to keep that image from changing. As TIME wrote then:

In Maryland, Mikulski and [Republican nominee Linda Chavez] are waging tough, no-holds-barred campaigns. Although both women come from ethnic, working-class backgrounds, “we are as different as two people can be,” says Chavez, 39, a cool Hispanic American who is married and makes much of being the mother of three sons. Mikulski, 50, is single, a self-styled scrapper with the sturdy perseverance of a tugboat. She sharply turns aside comments that she does not “look senatorial.” Says the candidate: “A lot of Americans, black or white or female, are always told that they don’t look the part. It’s one of the oldest code words.”

Mikulski won and became the first female Democrat to hold a seat in the Senate not previously held by her husband. As TIME put it back then, she had abandoned “petticoat politics” — an appropriate tactic for the woman who brought the pantsuit to the Senate.

Read the full 1986 story, here in the TIME Vault: No More Petticoat Politics

Read next: How Barb Mikulski Paved the Way for Hillary Clinton’s Pantsuits

Listen to the most important stories of the day.


Here’s How Much the Home of the Next President Is Worth

We don’t know who will replace Barack Obama in the White House, but we do know what kind of home he or she will be leaving behind. We’ve charted them below, using data from real estate sales tracker Zillow. Not surprisingly, the only former Fortune 500 executive on the list, Carly Fiorina, tops it with her $6.7 million mansion in Virginia.

Next up is the presumptive candidate from Chappaqua, N.Y., Hillary Clinton, with her $5.6 million Washington, D.C. home –a long way from Hope but just a hair above the former Arkansas governor turned commentator Mike Huckabee, whose Santa Rosa Beach house in Florida is valued at $5.5 million. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, lives in the least expensive home among those whose information is available on Zillow.

To compare the homesteads of presidential timber, click a column header in the chart below to sort by category. Scroll right to see them all.


The median home of the more than a dozen likeliest presidential candidates is worth $1.5 million. That’s more than eight times the value of the median American home, worth $178,500 today, according to Zillow. (The average candidate home is worth $2.3 million.) But it’s still a long way off from the address many have their eye on: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Zillow estimates the White House would be worth $385 million were it to ever go on the market.

Candidates’ homes have a way of becoming campaign fodder during presidential campaigns. John McCain was lampooned for being unable to say how many homes he owned in 2008. In 2012, Mitt Romney was mocked for building a car elevator in his La Jolla, Calif., residence. And this past June, Hillary Clinton drew guffaws when she said she and President Bill Clinton left the White House in 2000 “dead broke” and had to increase their earnings to “pay off the debts and get us houses.” As the 2016 campaign heats up, you’ll likely be hearing more about one or two of these homes.

This article has been updated to include Clinton’s residence in Washington, D.C.


The listings above reflect only the candidates’ residences available in public records. Some own multiple homes. All estimated home values are from Zillow.

TIME 2016 Election

Barbara Mikulski, Longest-Serving Woman in Congress, to Retire

Sen. Barbara Mikulski
Bill Clark—AP Senator Barbara Mikulsk (D., Md.) speaks with reporters as she arrives for the Senate Democrats' policy lunch on Dec. 9, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

The Maryland Senator's retirement in 2016 leaves a gaping hole in the state's Democratic power structure

Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who has served in Congress for nearly 40 years, will retire from her current position as U.S. Senator at the end of her term in 2016.

“I had to decide whether to spend my time fighting to keep my job or fighting for your job. Do I spend my time raising money or raising hell to meet your day-to-day needs?” she said at a Monday press conference announcing her decision. She vowed to continue to work to pass legislation in the Senate for the remainder of her term.

Mikulski, 78, was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1977 before moving to the Senate in 1987. She was the first woman to chair the influential Appropriations Committee, a coveted position given the committee’s oversight over hundreds of billions of dollars of discretionary spending.

Senate minority leader Harry Reid, who entered the Senate the same year as Mikulski, praised his Maryland counterpart as a “trailblazer”:

“Senator Barbara Mikulski’s career has been devoted to serving others,” he said in a statement. “As Dean of the women of the Senate, Barbara has been a mentor and friend to Senators on both sides of the aisle. Through her work, she has helped a generation of women leaders rise in the Senate.”

The departure of one of the most revered figures in Maryland politics leaves a gaping hole in the state’s Democratic power structure. A slew of members of the House may vie for her seat. It also may have implications for the 2016 presidential race if Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, opts to run for the Senate seat instead of challenging Hillary Clinton.

TIME Congress

7 Times World Leaders Addressed Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress on Tuesday, a speech that has raised tensions with the Obama Administration because it wasn’t consulted before House Speaker John Boehner made the invite—and it comes two weeks before Israeli elections.

From boundary-pushing leaders to controversial figures and world-changing peace visits, here are seven other times foreign dignitaries addressed a joint session of Congress.

TIME politics

Pot-Dispensing Rabbi: D.C. Residents Deserve Legal Access to Marijuana

Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, owner of the Takoma Wellness Center, dispenses medical marijuana on Oct. 10, 2014, in Takoma Park, DC.
Evelyn Hockstein—The Washington Post/Getty Images Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, owner of the Takoma Wellness Center, dispenses medical marijuana on Oct. 10, 2014, in Takoma Park, DC.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn lives in Washington, D.C., where he and his family own and operate Takoma Wellness Center.

Congress needs to back off and respect the wishes of D.C. residents to legalize marijuana.

Earlier this week, adult possession and use of marijuana became legal in the District of Columbia. There were no parties in the street or any kind of public consumption of marijuana. No one was hurt or arrested. No one got sick or died (at least not from marijuana consumption). The sky did not fall. One might not have noticed at all, had not members of Congress from far-off jurisdictions threatened to jail our mayor and council and bully the residents of the nation’s capital into submission to their will.

Congress is doing its best to prevent D.C. from legalizing marijuana. As Yogi Berra might have said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” In 1998, the citizens of the District voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. When Congress attempted and failed to halt that election, it blocked the counting of ballots. Once a judge ruled that the vote could be certified, Congress deployed the same tactics on display today to keep medical marijuana out of the hands of patients for 15 years. Finally, in 2013, D.C.’s medical-marijuana dispensaries opened. My family and I own and operate one of them, Takoma Wellness Center.

D.C.’s medical-marijuana law was blocked for 15 years. During that time, while Congress played politics with the lives of the citizens of the District of Columbia, tens of thousands of people suffered. Over that decade and a half, many of those people died.

For nearly 30 years, I served as a congregational rabbi. My rabbinate began in June 1981, on the same day the first case of AIDS was reported in the press. The beginning of my career coincided with the beginning of AIDS taking its heavy toll on humanity.

As a very liberal rabbi in a very conservative town, where stigma and acceptance became large HIV/AIDS issues, I found myself one of the few local clergy to work in support of people living with HIV and AIDS. I spoke at many meetings, visited many in the hospital, officiated at many funerals. There were years when hardly a day went by without AIDS issues on the agenda.

Those years were before the first pharmaceutical drug was introduced to help manage the symptoms of AIDS. During those days, marijuana provided the best-known relief. Marijuana stimulated the appetites of those who could not eat. Marijuana soothed the pain of those who suffered. Marijuana brought sleep to those who could not slumber. Marijuana eased the minds of those who faced stigma and death. I know. I saw it with my own eyes.

My family and I had a very close and personal experience with marijuana as medicine. My late father-in-law Jules Reifkind had multiple sclerosis for more than 50 years. Of the many, many treatments he tried to help live with that condition, the one that really helped was marijuana.

One physician had suggested my father-in-law try it in the 1970s. He was dubious. It was illegal, after all, and he was a pretty conservative guy. But eventually he did … and the spasms noticeably eased. At the time I didn’t know that there was real medical science behind the reason marijuana helped, but I had seen the difference before and after. I know. I saw it with my own eyes.

AIDS is no longer the out-of-control epidemic it once was. And, like with AIDS, pharmaceuticals have made MS far more manageable over the decades. But just like AIDS at its worst, there are many, many conditions, diseases, symptoms and injuries that are best addressed by marijuana.

Our patients are small children with seizure disorders that prescription drugs don’t help. They are victims of violence and terror, combat vets and so many others living with postcombat stress. They are people living with the chronic pain that is the result of injuries, including gunshot-wound victims and automobile-accident survivors. They are folks dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy and prescribed medications, people living with neuropathic pain and fibromyalgia—the list is almost endless.

We see a lot of people who find marijuana far more effective and far less dangerous than the pharmaceutical medicines they have been prescribed. No wonder overdose deaths are significantly lower in medical-marijuana states. For those in chronic pain, marijuana is usually more effective and always safer than opioids.

Our medical-marijuana dispensary serves more than 100 people a day who, before they discovered marijuana, were suffering, helpless and hopeless. And now they are not. They have found relief. They have hope. Medical marijuana has made a difference in their lives.

Congress has a very big agenda with a lot of important things to do. Congressmen Jason Chaffetz, Mark Meadows and Andy Harris have constituents in Utah, North Carolina and Maryland who deserve their full attention. The tactics we’ve seen employed this week are sadly reminiscent of those used to delay the legalization of medical marijuana. The time to delay has passed. We’ve legalized marijuana in the District of Columbia. The sky didn’t fall. I know—I saw it with my own eyes.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

How a Little-Known Supreme Court Case Got Women the Right to Vote

MPI / Getty Images A poster, published by the League of Women Voters, urging women to use the vote which the 19th amendment gave them, from circa 1920

Happy birthday, Leser v. Garnett

Pop quiz: when did women in the United States get the right to vote?

If you answered June 4, 1919, or Aug. 18, 1920 — the dates on which the 19th Amendment was passed and ratified — then you’re almost right. Yes, the Amendment guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied on account of sex. But the right wasn’t fully secured until this day, Feb. 27, in 1922. That’s when the Supreme Court decided Leser v. Garnett.

Here’s what the case was about: Two Maryland women registered to vote a few months after the 19th Amendment passed. Oscar Leser, a judge, sued to have their names removed from the voting rolls, on the grounds that the Maryland constitution said only men could vote, and that Maryland had not ratified the new amendment to the federal constitution — and in fact, Leser argued, the new amendment wasn’t even part of the constitution at all. For one thing, he said, something that adds so many people to the electorate would have to be approved by the state; plus, some of the state legislatures that had ratified the amendment didn’t have the right to do so or had done so incorrectly.

The Supreme Court found that both arguments flopped: when suffrage had been granted to all male citizens regardless of race the Amendment had held up, despite the change to the electorate, and the ratification powers Leser questioned had in fact been granted by the Constitution. (And in a few states where things were iffy, it didn’t matter because enough other states had ratified.)

So, while the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, Leser made sure that the right could actually be used, even where the state constitution said otherwise. It’s not one of the more famous Supreme Court decisions in American history, but without it the electorate would be, well, lesser.

TIME politics

The Conservative Case for Legalizing Marijuana

William F. Jr. Buckley
Truman Moore—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty William F. Buckley Jr., riding in airplane en route to Washington DC, in 1965

American conservatives haven't always opposed legalizing pot

The United States’ latest skirmish in the battle over marijuana laws is still ongoing and, for lawmakers, it hits close to home. On Thursday, possession of a limited amount of the drug became legal for adult residents of Washington, D.C. — but, thanks to the intervention of a group of Congressmen, there’s still no way to legally buy it or sell it there, which may lead to the development of a “free weed economy.”

The legislative action taken to stop the District from developing a monetary economy for pot has broken down along party lines, with Republican lawmakers against the change in stance toward the drug and Democrats urging the city to go ahead.

It may seem like a natural thing for conservatives to be, well, conservative about changing drug laws — polls have shown that Republicans are much less likely than Democrats to support legalization —but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, there was a time during the 1970s when the nation’s leading conservative voices spoke out on behalf of legalizing marijuana, for many of the same reasons that advocates of legalization cite today.

At that time, in late 1972, a large study from the nonpartisan Consumers Union had just come out, urging legalization, as well as government-supported treatment for addictions to other substances. The report found that it was too late for law enforcement to keep pot from becoming part of American culture — and, surprisingly, its authors weren’t the only ones to think so, as TIME reported that December:

…American conservatives may have arched their eyebrows well above the hairline when they glimpsed the latest issue of William F. Buckley Jr.’s staunchly nonpermissive National Review. There on the cover was the headline: THE TIME HAS COME: ABOLISH THE POT LAWS. Inside, Richard C. Cowan, a charter member of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, sets forth his arguments that the criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use should be stricken from the books. Cowan contends that pot is comparatively harmless, demonstrably ubiquitous and that the laws against it only alienate the young and breed disrespect for American justice.

The attitude was a shift for Buckley, who in 1971 testified against loosening penalties but wrote in 1972 that he agreed with Cowan. “It seems, in fact, that Buckley has smoked grass himself—but only on his sailboat, outside the three-mile limit,” TIME noted. “His verdict: ‘To tell the truth, marijuana didn’t do a thing for me.'”

See the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Concerning Pot and Man at The National Review

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