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Impressments and Embargo Led to the War of 1812

Did you know……………….?

As with any war, there were many factors that caused the War of 1812. In 1795, President Thomas Jefferson signed the Jay Treaty, in an attempt to avoid war with England. The treaty dealt with issues left unresolved between England and the United States after the American Revolution. But it neglected to address what was becoming an increasing large problem, the impressment of American sailors by the British Navy. The British Navy was in great need of men during the wars with France, from the 1790s through 1815.  Press gangs were a long-standing tradition of the Royal Navy. Men were taken from both British and American merchant ships, and Americans who had been born in England were fair game. Sailors in port were often tricked while drunk, and taken aboard British ships, awaking to find themselves in the Navy. It is estimated that over 9000 American sailors caught and forced to serve in the British Navy, taken either from their ships or in port. This practice was extremely unpopular, causing public outcry and turning American public opinion against Britain. The United States was embarrassed and humiliated that it could not protect its own ships and sailors.

Jefferson, still hoping to avoid war, responded with the Embargo Act of 1807, which ordered all British armed vessels out of American waters. It also, and more significantly, stopped all trade between America and any other country. France had also been attacking American ships, and the goal was to keep these two major powers from restricting American trade and to leave American ships and sailors alone. Unfortunately, the Embargo Act backfired. It was a disaster, and the American economy suffered.

Impressment of American sailors by the British. Illustration from School History of the United States, 1887. Courtesy photo.

In Marblehead, the Embargo of 1807 stalled the merchant trade, slowing the struggle to regain lost prosperity. It affected fishing as well, since dried fish was the main product for trade. Elbridge Gerry and all the New England politicians were beside themselves as they watched the region suffer. There was even talk of New England seceding from the United States.     The Embargo was lifted in 1809, and merchant trade continued, but with the return of trade, press gangs were active again. Of all the reasons for the War of 1812, impressment of American sailors was the most important for many Americans.

President James Monroe came into office just after Jefferson abolished the Embargo, and he saw the increase in tension, in anti-British feelings, and the continued pressing of American sailors into the British Navy. He declared war in 1812. Impressment of Americans by the British continued until the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, when the need for sailors in the British Navy was greatly reduced. In fact, the Royal Navy fought no major naval actions again until World War I.

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This entry was posted on May 4, 2012 by .
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