Lobel, Little Wars And The Constitution, University of Miami Law Review 61, 67-68(1995)

Letters of marque and reprisal were one way of referring to what were known as imperfect wars, special wars, limited wars -- all of which constituted something less than full-scale warfare. For example, Sir Matthew Hale, a well-known legal scholar in the seventeenth century familiar to the constitutional framers, wrote: "Special kinds of wars are that which we usually call marque and reprisal."  James Kent, in his authoritative Commentaries on American Law referred to special letters of marque and reprisal as "imperfect war[s]," which are "compatible with a state of peace."  Blackstone noted that the "prerogative of granting [letters of marque and reprisal] . . . is nearly related to . . . making war; this being indeed only an incomplete state of hostilities."

The framers and early leaders of the nation thus viewed letters of marque and reprisal as falling within the notion of imperfect war, incomplete hostilities, or limited warfare. Joseph Story, citing Blackstone, noted that the power to issue letters of marque and reprisal was "plainly derived from that of making war," being "an incomplete state of hostilities," often ultimately leading to a formal declaration of war.  Albert Gallatin argued that the grant of letters of marque and reprisal was "an intermediate state between peace and war," and generally preceded war, "[w]hen it has not been thought proper to come to open war at once."