Wednesday, October 08, 2008


The textbooks I read always referred to impressment – the British practice of stopping and boarding American ships and impressing members of the crew into service in the British navy – as a principal irritant in Anglo-American relations in the early 19th Century and a primary cause of the War of 1812. At the same time, the typical discussion of impressments was utterly opaque. Why did the British do it? What was their justification? Could they possibly have had a reasonable excuse? No one was saying.

It turns out that there are answers to these questions – and there were, indeed, two sides to the story, as Gary Wills relates in his excellent brief biography of James Madison. First, British need for seaman was great. The Napoleonic wars were stretching the British to the limit. The British were building ships as fast as they could. In the seven years from 1805 to 1812, the British navy had almost trebled in size, to 191 ships of the line, 245 frigates or equivalent, and several hundred other ships of war. All had to be manned, and it was generally understood that it took three years to train a seaman. For these reasons, in the midst of what the British, rightly or wrongly, considered a life-and-death struggle, “’[n]o British ministry that gave up the power of impressment could last a day.’” (Wills, quoting Ralph Ketcham)

Under the circumstances, Britain quite naturally took offence, and action, when it perceived that another country was harboring and employing large numbers of seamen who had deserted British ships. And that is exactly what was happening. Moreover, US authorities at the highest level were well aware of this provocation to British interests – and intentionally chose to do nothing about it.

The numbers are truly staggering. In 1807, Albert Gallatin, then President Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, conducted a survey of the US overseas commercial trade. According to Wills, Gallatin “found that roughly nine thousand British seamen were engaged in it – over a third of the overseas crews working under the American flag.” I haven’t been able to find Gallatin’s report online, but I did find a letter that he sent to President Jefferson on April 16, 1807, in which he characterized his findings as follows:
Our tonnage employed in foreign trade has increased since 1803 at the rate of about 70,000 tons a year, equal to an increase of 8400 sailors for two years, and I would estimate that the British sailors have supplied from one-half to two-thirds of that increase; for the natural increase of our native sailors has been in a great degree absorbed by the increase of whale-fisheries and impressments.

In other words, Gallatin was estimating that 8,400 to 11,256 British sailors had become employed in American “foreign trade” between 1803 and 1807.

President Thomas Jefferson apparently first learned of these findings on April 20, 1807, when he received a letter dated April 13 from his Secretary of State, James Madison, which enclosed Gallatin’s report.

Jefferson responded to Madison by letter dated April 21, 1807. In his response, Jefferson made clear that the numbers appeared so large that the government should make no efforts to stop the employment of foreign seaman on American vessels, and should stonewall any British attempts to negotiate concerning the subject (emphasis added):

Yours of the 13th came to hand only yesterday, and I now return you . . . Mr. Gallatin's paper on foreign seamen. . . . Mr. Gallatin's estimate of the number of foreign seamen in our employ renders it prudent, I think, to suspend all propositions respecting our non-employment of them. As, on a consultation when we were all together, we had made up our minds on every article of the British treaty, and this of not employing their seamen was only mentioned for further inquiry and consideration, we had better let the negotiations go on, on the ground then agreed on, and take time to consider this supplementary proposition. Such an addition as this to a treaty already so bad would fill up the measure of public condemnation. It would indeed be making bad worse. I am more and more convinced that our best course is, to let the negotiation take a friendly nap, and endeavor in the meantime to practice on such of its principles as are mutually acceptable. Perhaps we may hereafter barter the stipulation not to employ their seamen for some equivalent to our flag, by way of convention; or perhaps the general treaty of peace may do better for us, if we shall not, in the meantime, have done worse for ourselves. At any rate, it will not be the worse for lying three weeks longer.

I salute you with sincere affection.

P. S. Will you be so good as to have me furnished with a copy of Mr. Gallatin's estimate of the number of foreign seamen? I think he overrates the number of officers greatly.

Similarly, in a letter to Gallatin also dated April 21, 1807, Jefferson explained, “Your estimate of the number of foreign seamen in our employ, renders it prudent, in my opinion, to drop the idea of any proposition not to employ them.”

This is not to say that British abuses did not take place. During their searches of American vessels, the British seized some American citizens whose accents suggested they were recent immigrants. But the fact remains that American shippers were knowingly employing thousands of escaped British seamen. Clearly, they preferred to employ deserters, and suffer occasional boardings and impressments by the British, to foregoing their employment in the first place. The US government, likewise, concluded that US trade was so dependent on the employment of British deserters that stopping the practice would cause more harm than good.

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