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

American Reaction to the
Chesapeake Affair

Following her humiliating mauling by the Leopard, the Chesapeake returned to her home port of Portsmouth, Virginia. As news spread that an American ship had been attacked by a British man-of-war during peacetime, and that American sailors had been impressed, outrage grew.
President Thomas Jefferson. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
The cities of Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia, quickly passed resolutions denouncing the British fleet and refusing to allow any resupply or repair of Royal Navy ships in port. As the news spread, the American public unified in its indignation. President Jefferson reportedly said that though the British had committed many crimes against the United States that were cause for war, none had so unified the American public since the attack on Lexington in 1775.

The American government filed a formal protest and demanded an apology and full restitution of the impressed sailors, as well as a promise from the British government to suspend all further impressment of American seamen. To underscore this resolve, Jefferson signed an official decree on July 2, 1807, ordering all British vessels out of American waters, and followed it three days later by a call for 100,000 militia men to be mobilized to enforce his decree. Though the climate was right for war, Jefferson knew he was not yet in a position to go to war with Great Britain; unfortunately, the British realized this as well.

Despite American protests, the deserters taken from the Chesapeake were tried in Halifax in August 1807. The English deserter, Ratford, was found guilty and hanged. The other men, all Americans, were sentenced to prison. In October, King George III issued an order to step up the impressment of British sailors, particularly those serving on American merchant ships. The British were calling the Americans' bluff--and winning.

Frustrated and faced with no real military option, Jefferson proclaimed a worldwide embargo of American trade in December 1807. Under the Embargo Act, American ships were forbidden to export to or carry goods for other nations.
James Madison. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
The embargo was designed to prevent American ships from going "into harm's way." By simply not being at sea, the ships could encounter no further incidents of impressment or violations of trade rights. The embargo was a defensive measure to prevent the United States from being dragged into a war that it was ill prepared to fight, but Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, saw the embargo as an offensive use of economic coercion. It was believed that the absence of American trade would so harm England and France's ability to obtain needed war supplies that both would eventually repeal their restrictive trade acts.

Unfortunately, the Embargo Act only succeeded in crippling the American economy. Between 1807 and 1808, American exports dropped from $108 million to $22 million annually. Anger over the attack on the Chesapeake soon refocused on the Embargo Act, particularly in New England, where the maritime trades and commerce were the foundation of prosperity. By 1809, the embargo had become so unpopular in the United States that it was repealed. America had avoided war with England, but at great economic cost. The experiment with the embargo had also demonstrated to many Americans that economic coercion was not a weapon that the United States could effectively wield against the powers of Europe.

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