Prelude to the War of 1812

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Impressment of American Sailors
The Chesapeake Affair of 1807
American Reaction to the Chesapeake Affair
Entanglement in World Affairs
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Entanglement in World Affairs

From the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 through the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, the nations of Europe were almost constantly at war. England and France were the primary participants in these conflicts, and since both were imperial powers, the wars quickly spread. Eager to avoid being swept into these costly wars, the United States tried to maintain neutrality.

The wars in Europe had proven profitable for the United States: exports of grain, naval stores, and cotton rose dramatically. With expanded exports, American merchant fleets grew in size and world presence. The issue of freedom of the seas and freedom of maritime commerce would ultimately bring war to the republic.

Following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the Royal Navy, having decimated the French navy, turned to destroying the French economy through a vigorous blockade. Hoping to limit French access to supplies, the British placed restrictions on goods shipped to European ports. Nations wishing to trade with Europe were expected to comply with these restrictions; failure to do so would result in confiscation of ships and property by the Royal Navy.

Finding itself ever more isolated, France retaliated by passing a series of decrees voiding the British restrictions and threatening that any nation complying with British orders would have its ships confiscated by French authorities. These policies of blockade and counter-blockade by the British and French directly affected American shipping and pushed the war closer and closer to the neutral United States.

The following outline offers a discussion of the major restrictive acts passed by England and France during this period. They illustrate the increasingly complicated and dangerous world in which American commerce tried to exist.

The Berlin Decree

The Berlin Decree, issued by France in 1806, formally proclaimed a blockade against Great Britain. Any goods manufactured in England or its colonies, no matter the owner, would be considered a fair prize of war. Finally, the Berlin Decree stated that "No vessel coming directly from England, or any of its colonies, or having touched there since the publication of the present decree, shall be received into any harbour."

Orders in Council

The Order in Council issued by Britain on January 7, 1807, proclaimed the following:
. . .
it is hereby ordered, that no vessel shall be permitted to trade from one port to another, both which ports shall belong to, or be in the possession of France or her allies, or shall be so far under their control as that British vessels may not freely trade thereat; and the commanders of his majesty's ships of war and privateers shall be, and are hereby instructed to warn every neutral vessel coming from any such port, and destined to another such port, to discontinue her voyage, and not to proceed to any such port; and any vessel, after being so warned, or any vessel coming from any such port after a reasonable time shall have been afforded for receiving information of this his majesty's orders which shall be found proceeding to another such port, shall be captured and brought in, and together with her cargo, shall be condemned as lawful prize.

This was followed by a second edict in November of the same year:
. . . And whereas his majesty's order of the 7th of January last has not answered the desired purpose, either of compelling the enemy to recall those orders, or of inducing neutral nations to interpose, with effect, to obtain their revocation; but, on the contrary, the same have been recently enforced with increased rigour:

And whereas his majesty, under these circumstances, finds himself compelled to take further measures for asserting and vindicating his just rights, and for supporting that maritime power which the exertions and valour of his people have, under the blessing of Providence, enabled him to establish and maintain; and the maintenance of which is not more essential to the safety and prosperity of his majesty's dominions, that it is to the protection of such states as still retain their independence, and to the general intercourse and happiness of mankind:

His majesty is therefore pleased, by and with the advice of his privy council, to order, and it is hereby ordered, that all the ports and places of France and her allies, Or of any other country at war with his majesty, and all other ports or places in Europe, from which, Although not at war with his majesty, the British flag is excluded, and all ports or places in the colonies belonging to his majesty's enemies, shall, from henceforth be subject to the same restrictions in point of trade and navigation, with the exception hereinafter-mentioned, as if the same were actually blockaded by his majesty's naval forces, in the most strict and rigorous manner; - And it is hereby further ordered and declared, that all trade in articles which are of the produce or manufacture of the said countries or colonies, shall be deemed and considered to be unlawful; and that every vessel trading from or to the said countries or colonies, together with all goods and merchandize on board, and all articles of the produce or manufacture of the said countries or colonies, shall be captured, and condemned as prize to the captors.

One of the most important aspects of the Orders in Council was the statement that nations wishing to trade with closed ports must first pay transit duties.

Milan Decree

A retaliatory measure to Britain's Orders in Council, the Milan Decree was issued in 1807 by Napoleon. It declared that
Napoleon Bonaparte. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.

Every ship, to whatever nation it may belong, that shall have submitted to be searched by an English ship, or to a voyage to England, or shall have paid any tax whatsoever to the English government, is thereby, and for that alone, declared to be denationalized, to have forfeited the protection of its king, and to have become English property.

Whether the ships thus denationalized by the arbitrary measures of the English government, enter into our ports, or those of our allies, or whether they fall into the hands of our ships of war, or of our privateers, they are declared to be good and lawful prizes.

Non-Intercourse Act

President Jefferson responded to the European infringement on American trade with the Embargo Act in December 1807. The act was targeted mainly at Great Britain, whose strong navy was much more effective in stopping American trade than the French. Referring to the act as it was directed toward England, Secretary of State James Madison wrote, "We send necessaries to her. She sends superfluities to us. Our products they must have. Theirs, however promotive of our comfort, we can to a considerable degree do without." The act restricted American shipping to coastal trade alone; to enforce this limitation, vessels were required to post a bond for twice the value of their cargo as a guarantee that the vessel was not headed for a foreign port.

But the embargo proved more detrimental to the United States than to its intended victim. The minister to France stated, "Here it is not felt, and in England . . . it is forgotten." Between 1807 and 1808, exports dropped from $108 million to $22 million. The nation fell into a depression worse than any experienced since the early colonial days. Critics of the embargo likened it to a turtle, as it caused the nation to draw into itself and eventually to snap at segments of the nation's economy, from farmer to East Coast merchant.

The Embargo Act was repealed in March 1809 after its negative effects were severely felt by the United States. The Non-Intercourse Act was initiated in its place. This new act restricted trade to England and France and their respective colonies, but allowed for trade with all other nations. The act also provided that if either England or France repealed its restrictive trade policies, the Non-Intercourse Act would be lifted as it pertained to that country.

For a brief period after a promise to repeal the Orders in Council, trade with England was reopened. Soon after trade began, it was shut down again when it was realized that the American ambassador to Great Britain had failed to inform Congress that the Royal Navy intended to help enforce the Non-Intercourse Act against France. The Non-Intercourse Act expired in 1810, having done extensive damage to the United States and to Anglo-American relations.

Macon Bill

The Non-Intercourse Act was replaced in May 1810 by Macon's Bill Number 2. This bill lifted all restrictions on trade with both England and France. A provision was added that stated that in the event of either nation repealing its trade restrictions, an embargo would be established against the other nation.

In August 1810, Napoleon informed President Madison of his intention to lift the Milan and Berlin Decrees. In exchange, France expected trade to cease with Great Britain. In February 1811, before receiving proof that France had actually lifted its restrictions (in fact, it had not), the United States renewed an embargo against England and her colonies. France continued to stop American merchant ships and even imposed additional export restrictions and tariffs, essentially eliminating trade between the United States and the European continent. Napoleon's plan was to cause friction between the United States and Great Britain, and it succeeded perfectly.

Little Belt Affair

The impressment of American sailors continued in spite of protests and embargoes by the United States. At times, these cases would erupt in violent confrontations.
Battle between the President and the Little Belt. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
On one such occasion, the British frigate Guerrière stopped an American merchantman and seized one of her crewmen. After hearing of this incident, Captain John Rodgers set out in his frigate President in hopes of retrieving the man. Off Long Island, Rodgers came across an unidentified British vessel in the dark and fog. After an exchange of inquiries, Rodgers opened fire on what turned out to be the Little Belt, a 22-gun sloop. The Little Belt fired back at the 44-gun frigate, but sustained much greater damage, with nine killed and twenty-three wounded. With the dawn, Rodgers realized the true identity of his opponent. Though assistance was offered, the Little Belt refused and limped to Halifax for repairs. Many Americans saw this confrontation and its outcome as a suitable revenge for the Chesapeake-Leopard affair.

War Hawks and Canada

Many Americans believed that the British were supplying Indian tribes of the Ohio Valley with weapons from Canada. If this were true, only the conquest of Canada and the expulsion of the British from the American frontier could end Indian depredations.

The Republican party had already been split into a number of factions, and the Twelfth Congress of 1811 saw a new faction, the War Hawks. This group consisted of approximately a dozen members, most of them from the frontier regions of the nation. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the most famous of the War Hawks, had been elected Speaker of the House before the age of thirty-five. He was very outspoken against the impressment of American sailors, the Orders in Council, and British assistance to the Native Americans.

As the war approached, the War Hawks favored legislation that prepared the nation for war, both militarily and socially. They supported an embargo against Great Britain that would culminate in military action. This ninety-day embargo was designed to avoid having merchant ships at sea at the outbreak of war. In fact, the embargo had just the opposite effect, with merchants rushing their ships to sea before the embargo began.

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Commodore Barron's Inquiry into the Presence of British Deserters aboard the Chesapeake

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