Of the many factors that led to the War of 1812, British impressment of American sailors was one of the most consequential.
Since colonial times the British Royal Navy practiced the policy of impressment, or forcibly seizing men against their will and “pressing” them into military service in the Royal Navy.
Impressment was one of the only ways the British navy could properly man all their warships during times of need. Low pay and difficult conditions did not entice British men to enlist with the navy; instead they utilized their skill-sets on merchant vessels that paid better.
The outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century led to a massive shortage of sailors to man the growing British fleet. The British once again turned to impressment to fill their ranks.
The policy soon became a major issue in the United States, particularly once the British began to impress American citizens into serving in the Royal Navy. Americans were outraged at the affront on their sovereignty and demanded retribution.
Incidents such as the Chesapeake-Leopard affair further incensed Americans over blatant British disregard for their rights and brought relations to a fever pitch.
Though tensions would simmer somewhat, Britain’s refusal to repeal the hated policy served as a rallying cry for war.
British impressment of American sailors would eventually be cited as a major reason that led to the War of 1812.
What was the British Impressment of American Sailors?
British impressment of American sailors was an extremely controversial issue, particularly following the American Revolution.
British elites considered impressment to be an “evil necessity” that allowed the nation to defend and expand the empire.1
As the empire grew and new colonies were added to the fold, trade routes expanded and new ships were needed to defend these routes.
The growth is highlighted by the Royal Navy’s growth from just 35,000 sailors in 1690 to over 140,000 in 1805, a remarkable increase.1
At the same time global trade by water routes flourished. Sailors of all types were in high demand.
In fact, British merchants and the navy competed with each other for able-bodied sailors. As merchants paid higher wages and were less strict, the navy turned to the crude policy of impressment to fill their ranks.1
Press gangs roamed port cities throughout Britain and its many colonies seizing men against their will to serve on Royal Navy ships. Impressment was typically reserved only for those who had the desired sailor skill set, but it was not popular with the masses.2
The Napoleonic Wars kicked impressment into overdrive. The Royal Navy built hundreds of new ships to combat France and its allies and desperately needed men to fill them.
Historian Nicholas Rogers estimates that nearly 40% of all British navy personnel in the early 1800s were forcibly pressed into service.3
The low pay and harsh environments on the ships caused many men to desert the navy and find jobs elsewhere, even on American merchant ships.
The British navy hunted down these deserters and maintained the right to stop neutral ships to search for suspected deserters. In the process, the navy would impress sailors on the high seas if they were suspected British subjects.
Caught in the fold were thousands of American citizens that were forcibly impressed into British service, causing outrage throughout the United States.
How did Impressment Lead to the War of 1812?
The impressment of American sailors was a serious issue and helped lead to the War of 1812 for the following reasons: it threatened American neutrality and sovereignty, fueled growing resentment of Britain, directly led to the Embargo Act of 1807, and helped to bring War Hawks into Congress.
To put it simply, British policy and actions threatened US interests. The impressment of American sailors jeopardized everything the nation fought for in the American Revolution, and Britain’s refusal to acquiesce could not be tolerated.4
There were approximately 10,000 impressed American sailors between 1793 and 1812. While this was not a significant number in terms of the overall number of American sailors, it was enough to help push the United States to war.2
American Neutrality & Sovereignty Threatened
One of the primary reasons that impressment led to the War of 1812 was because it threatened American neutrality and sovereignty.
The main issue at play was that the British and United States had different definitions of what constituted citizenship.
The BrItish believed in subjecthood where a person born in British territory had an obligation to the crown from the moment of their birth through the end of their life.2
Conversely, the United States defined citizenship as a choice made by a person and nation. It was a consensual relationship where a person could choose what nation they belonged to, provided the nation accepted them.
The early United States was constantly in need of people to occupy land and work their industries, including shipping and trade. It therefore welcomed with open arms nearly anyone from European descent as citizens, even British Royal Navy deserters.
It should be noted that the early US was extremely discriminatory, as African Americans, Native Americans, and others of mixed race were not nearly as welcomed to citizenship.
Therefore, while Britain believed it was doing nothing wrong by searching American ships and ports to impress British subjects, many were also American citizens.
The fundamental difference in beliefs was not one that could easily be resolved. British leaders simply were not willing to give up the crucial policy of impressment over the known aspect of impressing some American citizens.
Continued impressment of American sailors came to a boiling point with the Chesapeake-Leopard affair where three Americans were killed when a British warship fired upon them.
It was not difficult to see why impressment threatened both American neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars and its sovereignty as an independent nation.
Fueled Growing Resentment of Great Britain
The impressment of American sailors also helped to fuel growing resentment of the British.
Newspapers across the nation published accounts of sailors who were unjustly impressed into British service. These accounts helped spread outrage across the nation.
In many places Britain was already viewed dubiously. Particularly in the south and on the western frontier British resentment lingered from the American Revolution and the years following.
Britain’s harsh military doctrine in the southern theater of the American Revolution—such as leading up to the Battle of Cowpens—left long-lasting scars.
The British also failed to keep their promises from the 1783 Treaty of Paris and maintained a presence in multiple frontier forts on US territory. While the British departed these forts following Jay’s Treaty of 1794 few other important issues were resolved.
Americans continued to accuse the British of supplying weapons and food to Native Americans on the frontier that led to continual violence. The 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe is thought to have resulted in part from the belief of British interference on the frontier.
As resentment against the British continued to grow, Britain consciously sacrificed relations with America. Its national desire was to defeat France at all costs, including straining its relationship with the United States.
British leaders hoped that France could be defeated quickly enough to avoid any long-lasting ramifications from the United States. In fact, if the British-French peace from 1801-1803 had lasted, the War of 1812 likely would’ve never happened.4
Directly Led to Embargo Act of 1807
Another way that impressment helped lead to the War of 1812 was that impressment was a primary reason behind the significant Embargo Act of 1807.
Following the Chesapeake-Leopard affair in June 1807, a large contingent of Americans called directly for war with Britain. The incident humiliated the United States and war was required to restore American honor.
However, President Thomas Jefferson was a determined pacifist who wanted to avoid war at all costs. In addition, the Jeffersonian ideals that the Democratic-Republican party adopted called for a small national military, leaving the United States entirely unprepared for war.
Jefferson therefore proposed to use the United States’ economy as a weapon to punish the British. Both nations relied on each other for trade—Britain for American raw materials and the US for British manufactured goods.
Jefferson’s hope was that the embargo would cripple the British economy, and the British would thus have no choice but to repeal the hated Orders in Council that enabled impressment.
The British economy proved more resilient than Jefferson thought. The economy was certainly damaged as prices increased, but British leaders endured the hardships and were politically unified.
Meanwhile the embargo completely backfired as the American economy was significantly damaged. Americans were outraged at the infringement upon their liberties and the trade-based New England states were particularly against the embargo.
Jefferson was forced to increase the size of the navy and bolster enforcement measures to combat sophisticated smuggling operations.
While there were many reasons the Embargo Act of 1807 failed, ultimately the Jefferson administration lacked the willpower and national unity to sustain the highly unpopular act.
After the embargo was repealed in 1809 there were few options for the United States to counter continued British impressment. The country would either accept the national humiliation or go to war over the matter.
Helped Bring War Hawks to Congress
The final step that brought the United States to war was the election of the so-called “War Hawks” to Congress.
The War Hawks were a small but vocal group of legislators that pushed for war with Great Britain. They are primarily associated with the Twelfth Congress which served from 1811-1813.
Members of this group included young legislators such as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, both of whom would go on to be influential members of Congress for decades to come.
Others primarily came from the south and west where Democratic-Republicans dominated the political landscape.
Impressment was a hot-button issue for the War Hawks. It was partially due to their influence that anti-British fervor swept the nation following repeated highly publicized impressments.
War Hawks demanded that the United States take action against the British for its repeated insults. National honor was at stake and war was the only remedy.
Interestingly, New England states were the most anti-war and their legislators opposed war despite being impacted by impressment the most. The New England economy was primarily trade-based and thus their port cities and merchant ships were prime targets of British “press gangs.”
The profits of neutral trade with European markets, even factoring in the impressments, were too lucrative to favor war over resumption of trade.2
In June 1812, the War Hawks got their wish when President Madison signed the declaration of war against Great Britain, beginning the important War of 1812.
To recap, British impressment of American sailors helped lead to the War of 1812 due to the following reasons:
- Threatened American Neutrality and Sovereignty
- Fueled growing resentment of Great Britain
- Led to Embargo Act of 1807
- Helped bring War Hawks to Congress
The British knew the controversial policy incensed Americans and that they were risking retaliation by continuing to do so. Nevertheless, the nation’s leadership was united with its desire to defeat France and Napoleon at all costs.
Impressment was seen as the only way to properly man its massive naval fleet and therefore defeat Napoleon.
For the United States, the impressment of its sailors was too great a reminder of British disrespect since the American Revolution.
National honor was at stake and after the failure of the Embargo Act, there was little other recourse but war. It is no surprise that War Hawks were known to call the War of 1812 the Second War of Independence.
Ironically the War of 1812 did not solve the issue of impressment, with the important Treaty of Ghent that ended the war including terms of status quo ante bellum (or as it was before the war).
Instead the British ended their policy of impressment once Napoleon was defeated and the French threat had subsided, shortly before the end of the War of 1812.
With US national honor restored, the post-war United States saw a surge in nationalism that highlighted the Era of Good Feelings. Impressment soon became a footnote as the United States encountered other challenges in its early years.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Alan Taylor. The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 1, 2014, pp. 166–68. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5309/willmaryquar.71.1.0166.
2) 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.
3) Magra, Christopher P. “Anti-Impressment Riots and the Origins of the Age of Revolution.” International Review of Social History, vol. 58, 2013, pp. 131–51. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26394641.
4) Smith, Dwight L. Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 59, no. 2, 1963, pp. 162–64. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27789076.