War of 1812: Causes--Impressment


Figure 1.--

The primary international issue was the impressment of American sailors by the Royal Navy and trade restictions. Both the British and French impressed American sailors. In fact American came close to war with France on the impressment issue. The impressments grew out of the war between France and England than any act aimed at the Americans. After Trafalgur (1805), it was the Royal Navy that was primarily responsible. The British war measure "The Orders in Council" authorized the Royal Navy to stop foreign vessels to search for deserters. When seamen suspected of being deserters were found, they were pressed into British service. There were British deserters on American vessels. Many British sailors were press-ganged into service and working conditions were brutal. Both pay and working conditions were much better on American ships. Thus many British sailors deserted to work on American ships. The British saw this as a necessary act of war. The Americans as an affront to the country and a lawless act akin to enslavement. As the British badly needed men, there is no doubt that Americans who had never served in the Royal Navy were impressed. Public outrage culminated in the Chesapeake affair (1807). nt. The Royal Navy frigate Leopard fired on the American warship Chesapeake which refused commands to stop. The British raked her decks with broadsides, killing 3 men and wounding 18 more. The British then boarded Chesapeake and seized 5 men who they claimed were deserters. It was later determined that only one of the men was a Royal Navy deserter. The Chesapeake Affair came close to war, but Jefferson resisted the calls for war. Napoleon after Trafalgur sought to attack the British with a trade blockade--the Continental System. The British responded with a naval blockade. Napoleon's Continental System required Russia, Prussia, Austria, and other Europeans under Napoleons control or influence to cease trading with Britain. The loss of European trade adversely affected the United States. This varied regionally. The northeastern states werecable to accept the situation because of the valuable trade with Britain. The southern states were more adversely affected. President Jefferson hoped the Embargo Act (1807) would end both trade issuyes and continued impressment incidents. The Act prohibiting any ship from leaving American ports for any foreign destination. It soon became apparent, however, that the Act adversely affected the American economy and had little impact on the British. American trade was devestated. Some tried to evade it by prtending to sail to other American ports and then meet British ships at sea and transboard the cargo. In some cases entire ships were handed over. The Act was so unpopular un Anerica that Congress repealed it (1809).

Importance

The primary international issue was the impressment of American sailors by the Royal Navy and related trade restictions. Both the British and French impressed American sailors. In fact American came close to wore with France on the impressmenr issue. Domestic issues were probanly more important in causing the War, but the impressment issue was probanly the more incendiary issue.

Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815)

The Napoleonic Wars followed the wars associated with the French Revolution. The Napoleoic Wars extended over 20 years and included a number of distinct campaigns. The First Coalition Wars (1792-97) including the Italian campaign can be associated with the French Revolution. The important campaign of the Napoleonic Wars are Egypt (1798-1801), Second Coalition (1798-1801), Third Coalition (1805), Fourth Coalition (1806-07), Fifth Coalition (1809), the Peninsular War, (1808-14), Invasion of Russia (1812), Germany (1813), Invasion of France (1814), and the 100 days campaign (1815). British actions against American shipping resulted in a war with the fledgling United States, referred to as the War of 1812 in America. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars did more to foster nationalist sentiment than any other events during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Fashions were largely pan-European before the Napoleonic Wars. After Waterloo (1815) and the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), individual nation satates coalessed and developed theie own values and fashions. One factor was the increasing nationalization of European monarchies. Before the Napoleonic Wars, there were many royal families which ruled provinces that that spoke different languages and had culturres different than the monarch. Even a large country like England had a series of Dutch and German kings. After the Naopoleonic Wars, nation states began to colaese, Finally Germany and Italy emerged. The monarchs in 19th centurty Europe (although not necesarily therir wives) were identified with the national culturel The English monarch (Victoria), the Czar, the Kaiser, the Italian king. the French kings and emperors were the embodiment of the national image--it would be unimaginable that such monarchs woulod be foreign. At the same time, destinctive national fashionsd became increasingly important. No longer would Europeans accept pan-European fashions like the skeleton suit. The impact on Germany and Central Europe after wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars need to be examined as much focus is usually on England and France.

Royal Navy's Need for Men

The Royal Navy impressments grew out of the Napoleonic Wars. It was the war between France and England than caused the British actions. It was not an act aimed at the Americans. The Napoleonic Wars resulted in the significant expansion of the Royal Navy. As a result the British badly needed men to man the new ships. One way to find the men as there was no conscription was the notorious press gangs. Another was the impressment of American sailors. This was actually preferable to the Royal Navy because the men impressed were actual sailors with nautical skills. Noth the British and French impressed American sailors, but a fter Trafalgur (1805), it was the Royal Navy that was primarily responsible.

Royal Navy Deserters

The Royal Navy stopped American-flag merchantment to prevent trade with France. Officers obstensibly looking for Royal Navy deserters indiscriminately seized British and American sailors from those U.S. merchant ships. Nationality somewhat complicated this issue. Some Americans were in fact British born and there wre quite a number of Royal Navy deserters working on merican ships. The British were not overly descriminating about who they seized. The need for men was often a more important matter. This practice despite the complications obviously was a violation of the the sovereignty of the United States. When seamen suspected of being deserters were found, they were pressed into British service. There were British deserters on American vessels. Many British sailors were press-ganged into service and working conditions could be brutal. Here the reader must be careful. Conditions were based upon modern standards brutal on a Royal Navy vessel, but that description ids less true give the standards of a day. Some point out punishments like flogging. But it should b rememnbere that in Britain at the time that a person could be hung for stealing a loaf of bread. A Royal Navy sailor probanly had a better diet and ay than the average British subject of the day. Even so, both pay and working conditions were much better on American ships. Thus many British sailors did desert their ships to work on American ships.

French Continental System (1806)

Napoleon after Trafalgur (1805) was no longer able to treaten Britain with invasion. He decided to attack the British with a trade blockade--the Continental System. It was designed to force Britain to make peace by attacking British commerce. It was implemented by the Berlin Decree (November 21, 1806). The follow-up Milan Decree (December 17, 1807) was retaliatin for the British Orders in Council (1807). The Milan Decree declared that neutral ships using British ports and paying tariffs (as required by the Orders in Council) would considered British and subject to seizure. France without a Navy was undertaking to blockade Britain. Napoleon required French allies, meaning mostly countries he defeated militarily to stop trading with Britain. Napoleon's Continental System required Russia, Prussia, Austria, and other Europeans under Napoleons control or influence to cease trading with Britain. The economies of tese countries suffered thus causing resisance to the system. This would eventually cause Russia to withdraw promting Napoleon to invade (1812). The loss of European trade adversely affected the United States. This varied regionally. The northeastern states were able to accept the situation because of the valuable trade with Britain. The southern states were more adversely affected. The Continental System did harm the British ecnomy. One result was the Luddite protest.

British Orders in Council (1807)

The British responded to the Continental System with a naval blockade. Britain approved the Orders in Council (1807). The Royal Navy was ordered to blockade France and her allies. The British barred neutral trade with France and countries allied with France. This was the British reaction to Napoleon's Continental System. The Orders in Council required neutral ships desiring to trade with France to enter British ports and pay a tax. This of course significatly increased shipping costs and threatened the U.S. maritime industry. The Royal Navy enforced a blockade on French an allied ports. Royal Navy vessels stopped American and other neutral vessels to search for contraband, meaning goofd headed for the Continent. During these stops, the Royal Navy was authorized to search for seserters.

Conflicting Views

The British saw this as a necessary act of war. The Americans as an affront to the country and a lawless act akin to enslavement. As the British badly needed men, there is no doubt that Americans who had never served in the Royal Navy were impressed.

Chesapeake Affair

An incident off the U.S. coast brouht these simmering issues to public attention (1807). Public outrage culminated in the Chesapeake affair. The Royal Navy frigate HMS Leopard fired on the American warship USS Chesapeake which refused commands to stop. The British raked her decks with broadsides, killing 3 men and wounding 18 more. The British then boarded Chesapeake and seized 5 men who they claimed were deserters. It was later determined that only one of the men was a Royal Navy deserter. The incidet was especially outrageous to Americans because not only was The Chesapeake a war ship and mot a merchant vessel, but the incident took place off the U.S. coast--the Virginia Capes. The Chesapeake Affair came close to causing hostilities, but Jefferson resisted the calls for war with Britain.

American Embargo Act (1807)

President Jefferson hoped the Embargo Act (December 1807) would end both trade conflicts and continued impressment incidents. The Act prohibiting any ship from leaving American ports for any foreign destination--essentially ending American foreign trade. It soon became apparent, however, that the Act adversely affected the American economy and had little impact on the British. American trade was devestated. The act crippled the American maritime industry--especially important to the New England economy. [Labaree] Some tried to evade it by prtending to sail to other American ports and then meet British ships at sea and transboard the cargo. In some cases entire ships were handed over. The Act was so unpopular that Congress repealed it (1809).

Impact

While the practice did obtain some sailors for the Royal Navy, there were obvious diplomatic consequences. This impressment of Americans so poisoned relations that cooperation on the slave trade was impossible. The impressment of sailors would eventually lead to the War of 1812. And it would impair the proscepts for cooperation on efforts to end the slave trade for decades after the War. With this background, it was difficult for the United States to accept any form of search or seizure by British forces, even in the effort to halt the slave trade.

British Repeal of the Orders in Council (1812)

American diplomats strongly protested British actions against American shipping and the impresment of Ameican and other sailors. The British finally decided to end the practice. Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Lord Castlereagh told parliament that the Orders in Council would be suspsanded (June 16, 1812). News of the announcement, however, would take weeks to reach the United States. The United States Congress two days later declared war on Britain (June 18). Lord Liverpool who headed a new British Government formaly repreived the Orders in Council (June 23). Lord Liverpool in London did not learn until weeks later thst the United States had declared war (July 29). The initial British action was restrained. They were not sure if this was a protest or if America actually had decided to fight a war. The British ordered their ships to sail in convoy and prevented American ships in British ports from leaving (July 31). It took even longer for President Madison in Washington to learn of the British repeal of the Orders in Council. He only learned (August 12). He could have asked Congress to halt hostilities, but declined to do so, primarily because of the strident support for the War in Congress. Also he had no information on how the British were going to respond to the American declaration of war. [Vogel, pp. 20-32.]

Sources

Labaree, Benjamin W. et. al. America and the Sea: A Maritime History (Mystic: Mystic Seaport, 1998).

Vogel, Robert. Without Consent or Contract (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989).






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