When it comes to discussion around the causes of the War of 1812, one event stands out above the rest. Just what was the historical significance of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair and how did it help lead to the War of 1812?
The Chesapeake-Leopard affair would not have occurred if not for the British policy of impressment, or forcibly seizing men to serve in the Royal Navy.
Of all the British transgressions against the United States post-American Revolution, impressment was perhaps the worst.
United States sailors were often forcibly impressed into Royal Navy service despite having American citizenship. Between 1793 and 1812 it’s estimated that the British impressed nearly 10,000 American sailors.1
It is against this incendiary backdrop that the significant Chesapeake-Leopard affair occurred.
What was the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair?
The Chesapeake-Leopard affair was a naval incident between the USS Chesapeake and HMS Leopard in June 1807. The affair was primarily incited by the British policy of impressment.
During the Napoleonic Wars British ships had routine authorization to stop neutral naval ships and merchant vessels on the high seas to search for Royal Navy deserters.
In 1807 British Admiral Sir George Berkeley went a step further, authorizing his ships to board, search, and fire upon neutral vessels as necessary.
Berkeley had good reason to believe that the American frigate USS Chesapeake was harboring several British Royal Navy deserters and commanded his flagship, HMS Leopard, to search for them.
In June 1807, the two ships met just off the coast of Norfolk, VA.
After American Captain James Barron refused to allow a British boarding party to search his ship for deserters, the Leopard fired upon the Chesapeake delivering three broadsides into the frigate.
The neutral American vessel was caught completely unprepared for a battle and only fired a single gun in response before surrendering. Three American sailors were killed and eighteen others were wounded, including Captain James Barron.
Furthermore, the British refused the surrender and searched the Chesapeake for deserters anyways.
While there were dozens of British nationals on board, the British only seized the four Royal Navy deserters and removed them from the American vessel.
Three of these men happened to be American citizens, though the fourth was a British-born subject.
The attack on a neutral American ship and seizure of American citizens provoked outrage across the United States. A sluggish British response only served to further inflame Americans already outraged over the routine British impressment of American sailors.
The British eventually did attempt to make amends. Berkeley was recalled from his post but subsequently given a more important command as his actions were applauded by the British press.3
The Significance of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair
The historical significance of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair is that the incident greatly humiliated the United States, directly led to the Embargo Act of 1807, and eventually was a major cause of the War of 1812.
President Thomas Jefferson faced intense pressure to respond to the British slight. Jefferson was an avid pacifist, one of his party’s Jeffersonian beliefs, and averted war, though he chose to use the nation’s economy as a weapon with a total embargo.
Following the Chesapeake incident, calls for war with Britain grew even louder until the War Hawks in the 12th Congress finally got their wish in 1812.
Humiliated the United States
The Chesapeake-Leopard affair humiliated and angered the United States. The Chesapeake wounded and dead sailors were transformed into martyrs by an American press that called for retribution against Great Britain.
Many Americans treated the incident as a national insult and an affront to US sovereignty and neutrality. The affair once again highlighted the general British disrespect of American rights and its status as an independent nation.2
Demands for war grew in Congress as the nation determined a path forward. The press wondered aloud whether American sailors would ever be safe from the vile British threat.
John Adams remarked:
“Ought they to submit to the tyranny of British seamen? Will not such impressments break their hearts and put petticoats on them all?”1
President Jefferson was reluctant to heed the war calls but not only for his pacifist beliefs.
The Chesapeake-Leopard incident highlighted the United States’ naval inferiority to the British and its general unpreparedness for war. The small US navy was already primarily deployed to the Mediterranean to combat the Barbary pirate threat.
In addition the army was small and weak given that the Jeffersonian Democrats preferred to rely on a strong militia.
Jefferson did not see war as an option, but he firmly believed the US must not allow the incident to go without a firm response. After diplomacy failed, Jefferson hoped to persuade the British to repeal their policy of impressment with a total embargo on United States trade.
Led to the Embargo Act of 1807
The Chesapeake-Leopard affair was undoubtedly one of the primary factors that led to the significant Embargo Act of 1807.
While President Jefferson was unwilling to go to war over the incident, his weapon of choice for retaliation was the United States’ economy.
At the time the United States was a burgeoning power in global trade, particularly with the British Empire. The US sent raw materials to Britain and in return, British manufactured goods were sold in America.
Jefferson hoped to exploit this relationship and, by ceasing all trade, cripple the British economy that was thought to rely on American raw materials. In order to avoid certain economic disaster, Jefferson hoped Britain would acquiesce and the United States could avoid war.
Instead, the Embargo Act of 1807 failed. The British economy was significantly damaged, as shown in how the prices of general goods drastically increased.
However, British leadership was united in its aim to defeat Napoloenic France at all costs. The island nation was able to weather the economic storm given its united front and ability to draw on new markets from its colonial empire.
Meanwhile in the United States the embargo was incredibly unpopular. The nation was hit hard by the embargo with exports and imports dropping by 60-80%.
Unemployment dramatically increased, riots and protests persisted, and large-scale smuggling operations emerged to bypass the blockade.
In order to enforce the embargo Jefferson was forced to infringe on the civil liberties of American citizens, one of the core tenets of his beliefs.
With the nation divided, Jefferson repealed the embargo in 1809 in the final days of his presidency.
The failure of economic warfare signaled that if Britain would not relent, the only path forward was war or national humiliation.
Major Cause of the War of 1812
A last reason for the significance of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair was its role as a major cause of the War of 1812.
A wave of nationalism immediately followed the incident with demands for retribution and war with Britain. Jefferson hoped diplomacy would provide an adequate resolution and strategically refused to call Congress over the summer for a special session.
By the time Congress met in October, diplomacy had failed, though the public outcry for war had died down.
Cooler heads prevailed with the nation turning to an embargo in 1807 and temporarily averting war, but war fervor remained.
Relations with Great Britain continued to deteriorate as the British were also slow to make amends. The British begrudgingly admitted that three of the deserters taken were American citizens and eventually released them from captivity five years later.2
The lone British subject was tried and sentenced to death just months after the incident.
Interestingly, British public opinion also called for war against the United States and defended the Leopard’s attack. In their view the United States harbored British navy deserters and refused to allow the Royal Navy the opportunity to bring British subjects to justice.3
Foreign Secretary George Canning expertly navigated the incident and took a more conciliatory approach. War was only a last resort.
After the failure of the Embargo Act and later economic measures like Macon’s Bill No. 2, the only avenue left to resolve the outstanding disputes was war.
President Madison would go on to ask Congress for a declaration of war in June 1812 citing impressment and British violation of American sovereignty as one of many reasons.
Congress obliged, leading to the important War of 1812.
To recap, the historical significance of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair lies in the following:
- Humiliated the United States
- Led to the Embargo Act of 1807
- Major cause of the War of 1812
The core issue of the British impressment of American sailors was one that struck the hearts and minds of Americans.
If they could not defend their own citizens from foreign nations, were they really an independent nation?
Interestingly, the United States was inconsistent with its outrage over impressment. The response to the Chesapeake-Leopard affair was expected given the blatant British attack and deaths of American sailors.
But other high-profile impressments did not always merit the same response. A 1798 incident on the USS Baltimore where 5 American men were impressed caused public outrage, though the removal of 3 sailors from Gunboat #6 in 1805 barely registered.
The media coverage of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair is also noteworthy. Most media coverage of the unjust removal of the four men went towards the lone British subject who was executed in August 1807.
Of the three American citizens removed from the Chesapeake, two were black sailors. Black sailors of the time period were generally unacknowledged and rarely won sympathy in the public eye.2
The American press therefore shied away from focusing on the individual sailors and instead on the vile British practice of impressment.
Though the War of 1812 would solve little and the Treaty of Ghent ending the war returned conditions to status quo antebellum, the British would never again turn their policy of impressment against American sailors.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) BRUNSMAN, DENVER. “Subjects vs. Citizens: Impressment and Identity in the Anglo-American Atlantic.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 30, no. 4, 2010, pp. 557–86. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40926065.
2) Cray, Robert E. “Remembering the USS Chesapeake: The Politics of Maritime Death and Impressment.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 25, no. 3, 2005, pp. 445–74. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30043338.
3) Perkins, Bradford. “George Canning, Great Britain, and the United States, 1807-1809.” The American Historical Review, vol. 63, no. 1, 1957, pp. 1–22. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1847109.