H. M. (Henry Marie) Brackenridge.

History of the late war between the United States and Great Britain: online

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mit no neutral. In practice it was carried to the full extent.
The orders in council of the 8th of January 1793, became the
source of a thousand vexations to American commerce; and yet
they were in a manner tolerable, compared to those of the 6th
of November, which were secretly circulated among the British
cruisers, authorising them to capture, " all vessels laden with
the produce of any of the colonies of France, or carrying pro-
visions or supplies to the said colony." The greater part of
our commerce was at once swept from the ocean. On this


British Impressment of American Seamen.

occasion, our mercantile communities came forward, unbiassed
by party divisions. They expressed themselves in the strong-
est terms against this treacherous and wicked procedure. The
war of the revolution had not been forgotten ; that with the sav-
ages still raged : it w^as not by such acts, w^e could be induced
to entertain a friendly feeling towards England. There pre-
vailed a universal clamour for war, among the merchants parti-
cularly, and which it required all the firmness of Washington
to withstand. This great man had marked out to himself the
wise policy, of keeping aloof from European politics, and
of avoiding all entanglements in their wars. Mr Jay was
despatched as a special messenger, with orders to remon-
strate in a manly tone. This mission terminated in the cele-
brated treaty of 1794 ; which was sanctioned by the nation,
although not without great reluctance. It appeared in the
sequel, that we had merely evaded a war, in order to re-
commence disputes concerning the same causes.

The British did little more than modify their orders in coun-
cil, by those issued in 1795 and 1798. In fact, down to the
peace of Amiens, the same vexations and abuses furnished a
constant theme of remonstrance. Neither General Washing-
ton, nor Mr Adams, was able to arrange our differences with
England, or induce her to consult her own true interests, by a
just and liberal policy towards us. From this we may fairly
infer, that no administration of our government could have
succeeded in accommodating our differences upon just and
equitable principles.

Another cause of complaint accompanied with equal step the
violations of our commercial and maritime rights, and was of a
nature still more vexatious. It is one upon which American
feeling has always been much alive. Great Britain is the only
modern nation, witliin the pale of civilization, at least of those
who recognise the general maritime law, who does not consi-
der the tlag as protecting the person who sails under it ; and we
are the only people who, during peace, have been dragged from
our ships on the high seas, by Christian nations, and condemn-
ed to servitude. This intolerable outrage grew up from a small
beginning, by imprudent acquiescence on our part ; perhaps
not conceiving it possible, that it could ever assume so hi-
deous front. At first, it was a claim to search our merchant
vessels for deserters from the public service of Britain ; next,
it became aright to impress English seamen, who had engaged
themselves in American ships ; finally, every person who could
not prove on the spot, to the satisfaction of the boarding officer,
that he was an American, was carried away into a most hate*


British Impressment of American Seamen.

ful bondage. England had gone far, in asserting the right to
search a neutral vessel, for enemy's goods ; but this pretended
exception to the general rule that a ship on the high seas is as
inviolable as the territory of the nation at peace, had been op-
posed by every power in Europe, excepting the one which
happened for the time to be mistress of the seas ; a strong proof
that it was not a right, but an abuse. The claim set up of a
right to search neutral ships for men, is unsupported by any
writer on the public law, or by one sound reason. She had
no more right to claim her subjects from our ships, than from
our territory. Whatever right she might have, to prevent them
from quitting their country, at times when their services were
required ; or of punishing them for doing so : she had no right
to pursue them into our country, or demand them from us, un-
less sustained in doing so by express stipulation. But what
she had no right to demand, she had a right to take by force !
When closely pressed, she deigned at last to give some reasons
in support of her practice : — she must have men to man her
thousand ships — she was contending for her existence — we had
no right to employ her seamen — our flag had no regard to her
interests — our employment of foreign seamen was not regu-
lated — our sufferings were the consequences of our own im-
prudence. — These were the only arguments that could be used in
support of such a practice. If England said she must have
men, we answered that we must have men also. We also
were contending for our existence, but did not think it justi-
fiable on that account to plunder our neighbours, or make them
slaves. She said that we had no right to employ her seamen —
we could answer that she had no right to employ ours. We
were no more bound to consult her interest, than she considered
herself bound to consult ours. The fact is, that no nation in
the world employs a greater number of foreign seamen than
Great Britain, in her immense commerce, and in her immense
navy ; and she has a right to employ them, not for the reason
she then assigned, to wit, that she was contending for her ex-
istence, or fighting the battles of the world, but because the
thing was lawful in itself. So far from restricting herself, or
regulating the practice, or consulting the interests of others,
she consulted only her own interests, and held out enticements
to foreign seamen, which no other nation did. Here, then, was
a simple question ; how came that to be unlawful in America,
which was lawful in Britain ? Would not Great Britain protect
an American seaman, who has been made an Englishman by
being two years in her service 1 But were we to blame because
her seamen preferred our service ? There was, in fact, nothing in


British Impressment of American Seamen.

the American practice to justify reprisals. The employment
of English seamen, who voluntarily tendered their services, was
lawful, however disagreeable it might be to England. How far a
friendly feeling towards that country, might induce us to consult
her convenience and interests, or how far our own weakness, or
interest, might require us to waive our rights, was another matter.

This is placing the subject in the least reprehensible view,
as respects England. But when we come to examine the man-
ner in which this pretended right was exercised by her, it can-
not be doubted for a moment, that the whole was a mere pretext
to vex our commerce, and recruit for her navy, from American
ships. This is evident, from the uniform practice of impress-
ing men of all nations, found in them : Spaniards, Portuguese,
Danes, Russians, Hollanders, and even Negroes. It was, in
fact, an insult to every nation in the civilized world. Tros
Tyriusquc mcllo, was the motto, although not in the friendly
sense in which it was used by the Queen of Carthage. The
British practice amounted to subjecting the crew of every Ame-
rican vessel, to be drawn up before a lieutenant of the navy,
that he might choose out such as suited his purpose. The
good sailor was uniformly an Englisliman, and the lubber an
American. It has been said, that tiie number of impressed
Americans was exaggerated ; was there no exaggeration as
to the number of Englishmen in xVmerican service ? Was it
then of more importance, tliat Great Britain sliould prevent a
few of her seamen from escaping into a foreign service, than it
was to us, that free Americans should be doomed to the worst of
slavery ?

England has never known the full extent of the sensations
produced in America, by her practice of impressment. The
influence of party spirit has contributed to deceive her. The
great body of Americans have always felt this outrage to their
persons, with the keenest indignation ; no American adminis-
tration would ever express a different sentiment. She was much
mistaken, if she supposed, that tlie outcry against her conduct
was a mere party trick : it was deeply felt as an egregious in-
sult. She did not know that the American seamen were, in
general, of a class superior to her own ; that is, more decently
brought up, of more reputable connexions, of better morals and
education, and many of them looking forward, after the expira-
tion of their apprenticeships, to be mates and captains of ves-
sels ; or rather she knew it well, and therefore gave them her
baleful preference. But mark the retribution which follows
the steps of injustice. When any of these men were so fortu-
nate as to escape from seven or ten years servitude on board a


British Impressment of American Seamen.

British man of war, they breathed nothing but revenge, and
imparted the same feeling to their countrymen. It was pre-
dicted, that these men who had wrongs of their own, would
be found, in case of war with England, no common foes. War
came, and Britain may read in our naval combats, a commen-
tary on her practice of impressment, and her tyranny on the

As early as the year 1793, it was declared by the American
minister at London, that the practice of impressment had pro-
duced great irritation in America, and that it was difficult to
avoid making reprisals on the British seamen in the United
States. It is perhaps to be regretted, that General Washing-
ton's threat was not carried into execution, as it might have
brought the affair to issue at once. The practice had grown
so vexatious after the treaty of 1794, that the British govern-
ment was told in plain te^ms, that unless a remedy was applied,
war would be inevitable. It was said to be of such a nature,
as no American could bear; " that they might as well rob the
American vessels of their goods, as drag the American sea-
men from their ships, in the manner practised by them." Cer-
tainly the offence would have been as much less, as a bale of
goods is of less value than a man. It was stated, that as many
as two hundred and seventy Americans were then actually in
the British service, the greater part of whom persisted in re-
fusing pay and bounty. They were told, that if they had any
regard for the friendship of this country, they would facilitate the
means of relieving those of our oppressed fellow-citizens. That
the excuse alleged by Great Britain, of not being able to dis-
tinguish between her subjects, and the citizens of America,
was without foundation, inasmuch as foreigners who could not
be mistaken, were equally liable to impressment. The hon-
our of the nation, it was said, was deeply concerned, and un-
less the practice should be discontinued, it must ultimately lead
to open rupture. This was the language uniformly held forth,
by every successive administration of the American government.
It was the theme of reprobation, and remonstrance, of every
distinguished statesman of this country. On this subject we
find Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Mar-
shall, Jay, Pickering, King, and many others, in their official
correspondence, fully and uniformly concurring. In fact, these
complaints continued until the last hour, in consequence of our
impolitic submission.

This shocking outrage was at length carried to such extent,
that voyages were often broken up, and the safety of vessels
endangered, by not leaving a sufficient number of mariners on


British Impressment of American Seamen Attack on the Chesapeake.

board to navigate them. It was estimated, that at least seven
thousand Jlmericans were at one lime in the British service,
against their will. Even as respects her own subjects, the
practice of impressment is one of the most cruel and unjust ;
in direct opposition to the general freedom of her constitu-
tion, and only covered by the most miserable sophistry ; but
to America, who would not endure a single one of her citizens
to be impressed into her own service, it is not surprising that it
should appear detestable. The tribute of Minos, or of Monte-
zuma, of the youth doomed as a sacrifice to infernal idols, was
not more hateful. The American was compelled to stoop to
the humiliation of carrying about him, on tlie high seas, the
certificate of his nativity ; and this was soon found unavailing,
it was torn to pieces by the tyrant, and its fragments scattered
to the winds. She boldly asserted the right of dragging from
underneath our flag, every one who could not prove on the spot,
that he zvas not a British subject. Every foreigner, no matter
of what country, was, in consequence, excluded from our mer-
chant service. On the part of the United States, every possible
effort was made to compromise the matter, but in vain. No
offer was ever made by Great Britian, which presented any
prospect of putting an end to these abuses ; while the most lair
and rational on our part, were rejected. iVbout the year 1800,
a proposal was made for the mutual exchange of deserters, but
this was rejected by Mr Adams, for the same reason that the
President rejected the treaty of 1806 — because it was thought
better to have no provision, than one which did not sufficiently
provide against the abuses of impressment. England offered
to make it penal, for any of her naval ofliicers to impress our
seamen, provided we discontinued our practice of naturalizing
her subjects. The mockery of such a proposition, alone fully
proves her fixed mind. No plan could be devised so suitable
to her wishes, as that of subjecting the liberty, life, and hap-
piness of an American citizen, to the caprice of every petty
lieutenant of her navy : otherwise, she would have been con-
tented, with the exclusion of her subjects from all American
vessels, a thing which she had no right to ask, but which we
were willing to grant for the sake of peace.

The climax of this extraordinary humiliation, and which, a
century hence, will scarcely be credited, was still wanting ; the
attack on the Chesapeake occurred, and, for the moment, con-
vulsed the nation. This vessel was suddenly attacked within
our waters in profound peace, compelled to surrender, and several
seamen, alleged to be British, were then forcibly taken from
her. The burst of indignation which followed, was even more


Attack on the Chesapeake.

violent than that which was produced by the orders in council
of 1793. Party animosity was suspended, meetings were as-
sembled in every village, the newspapers were filled with formal
addresses, volunteer companies were every where set on foot,
and, in the first phrensy of the moment, the universal cry was
for immediate war. Although hostilities were not declared,
the feelings of America were from that day at war with Eng-
land : a greater attention was paid to the discipline of our
militia, and the formation of volunteer corps ; and the govern-
ment was continually making appropriations for our national
defence. We still resorted to negotiation ; and the aggressors,
thinking that we might now possibly be in earnest, were willing
to avoid war by a sacrifice of pride. They yielded to the humi-
liation of surrendering the American citizens, upon the very
deck from which they had been forced ; but, at the same time,
rewarded the officer by whom the violence had been ofiered.
In excusing her conduct, England condescended to tell us,
with a serious face, that she never 'pretended to the right of
impressing Aynerican citizens, and this, she seemed to consider,
ratlier as a magnanimous acknowledgement. Humiliating in-
deed, to be seriously told, that she did not regard our citizens
as her property ! Nothing can furnish stronger proof of the
extent of the abuse, and the bad policy of our pacific course of
remonstrance. Our sacred duty to our fellow-citizens, as well
as a regard to our national character, forbade such an acqui-

From this review of the subject of impressment, we return
to the other principal branch of our national differences. It
must be evident to the reader, that nothing was to be expected
from any temporary arrangement on the part of our enemy :
that nothing short of a change in her general policy and temper,
would suffice, and nothing but a war could effect this change.
Whatever disputes we may have had with other nations, they
were of little moment, compared to our differences with England.
To settle the terms on which we were to be with her, was of
the first importance ; our mutual intercourse and trade were of
vast extent; she occupied the highway to other nations, which
she could interrupt when she pleased ; it was of little conse-
quence on what terms we were with others, so long as our
relations with England were not properly adjusted. Our in-
tercourse with France was comparatively of but little moment.
She had not recovered from the phrensies of her revolution ; her
deportment was eccentric, lawless, and unstable ; she was a
comet, threatening all nations. Our true wisdom was to keep
out of her wav. On the ocean she was but little to be dreaded,


Differences with France French Decrees.

and was in no condition to execute her threats. But notwith-
standing the power of England to sweep our commerce from
the ocean, and to seal our ports, we still expected something
from her good sense, her justice, or her interest. Yet scarcely
was the flame of war once more lighted up on the continent, than
both the belligerents began, under various pretexts, to prey upon
our commerce. On the part of England, the rule of 1756 was re-
vived, and applied in a manner more intolerable than ever. The
sufferings of the American merchants were such, as to cause
them to call loudly on the government for protection ; and a
war with England, at this time, was by many thought inevita-
ble. It appeared to be her fixed determination, that neutrals
should enjoy no trade without her special license and permis-
sion. By some it was thought, that if we should enter into
her views, and declare war against France, she would amicably
arrange the points in dispute between us. This, however, was
very doubtful ; it would only have encouraged her to make still
further claims. Such a thing was, besides, impossible. The
American people, still smarting under so many wrongs unre-
dressed, could not be induced to do what would amount almost
to a return to subjection.

In May 1806 Great Britain commenced her system of paper
blockade, by interdicting all intercourse with a great part of
France and her dependencies. This operated exclusively on
the United States, who were the only remaining neutrals. The
decrees of the French emperor of the 6th of November follow-
ed, and were immediately made known to our minister at Lon-
don by the British government, with a threat, that if they were
put in execution (although the British minister well knew, that
it could be nothing more than a bravado) similar measures
would be adopted. But without waiting the result, in fact be-
fore the lapse of a fortnight, the British government issued the
orders in council of the 7th of January 1806, which went the full
length of declaring, that no vessel should be at liberty to trade
from one port of France to another, or from a port under her
control, and from which the English were excluded. Napo-
leon's Milan decrees succeeded, which were little more than
nominal to the neutral who did not place himself in his power ;
they affected us, not England. We were the only sufferers in
this system of retaliation, which was, in fact, a gross violation
of neutral rights on the part of both. England was apparently
benefited, inasmuch as it struck a blow at our commerce, and
rendered it impossible for us to spread a sail without her per-
mission. The belligerents presented the spectacle of two


Embargo Non-Intercourse.

highwaymen, robbing a passenger and then quarrelling for the
spoil ; and yet this was called retaliation !

The United States sincerely wished to be at peace. Each
of the belligerents accused us of partiality : and wherein was
that partiality? Simply in this: France declared that we suf-
fered tlie depredations of England with more patience, than her
own ; and England, that she alone had a right to plunder us !
Each seemed to consider it as a previous condition of rendering
us justice, that we should compel her adversary to respect our
rights. In this singular situation, it appeared the wisest course
to withdraw entirely from the ocean. Experience soon taught
us that our embargo system could not be carried into effect, for
reasons which it is unnecessary to repeat. The restrictive sys-
tem was substituted ; we placed it in the power of either of the
wrong doers, to make us the open enemy of the other, unless
that other renounced his practices. Napoleon was the first to
announce " a sense of returning justice;" our government, the
suffering party, declared itself satisfied. England had shoivn
no such sense of returning justice, on this occasion ; she had
promised to repeal her orders, provided the French decrees
were rescinded ; but refused to take the official declaration of
the French minister, although we had, in a similar case before,
accepted her own, and positively refused to repeal the orders
in council, in default of evidence that the French were disposed
to do us justice/ It were useless to discuss the question of our
partiality to France or to England, while we were complaining
of the aggressions of both. The meaning of both was obvious
enough ; it was that we should take part in the affairs of Eu-
rope. England supposed that we could do her service, and
Napoleon thought that we could injure England.

In the meantime, the loss of American property by the de-
predations of the belligerents, had been immense. The vexa-
tions practised by the British cruisers off our coast, who made
it a point to harass the issuing and returning commerce of the
United States, kept the public mind continually inflamed. Our
citizens were distracted amid these surrounding difficulties. It
was agreed that we had ample cause of hostility against both
belligerents, but the administration was accused of undue lean-
ing towards France, and a disposition not sufficiently concilia-
tory towards England. The friends of the administration de-
clared, that the efforts to obtain redress from England were
weakened by a powerful British influence, which had grown
up of late years, in the Eastern States and in the commercial

While the public mind was in this state of ferment, from

dJIEI^IlEl^IL mu^mEiiigoMo



Indian Hosti lities Tecumseh.

our disputes with England and France, our frontiers were
threatened with an Indian war, which, as usual, was attributed
to the instigations of the former. The United States have
frequently been charged with cruel violence and injustice to
the Indians. That we have encroached upon their hunting
grounds, cannot be denied, but this was the necessary conse-
quence of the increase in our population : but the great differ-
ence between us and other nations, in relation to the Indian
lands, is, that instead of taking them without ever acknowledg-
ing the right of the Indians, we have endeavoured to obtain
them by fair purchase. The United States were the first to
respect the Indian territorial right, as they were the first to
abolish the slave trade.

There was, at this time, a celebrated Indian warrior, who
had been always rem:irkable for his enmity to the whites, and
who, like Pontiac, had formed the desicrn of uniting all the
different tribes, in order to oppose an effectual barrier to the
further extension of the settlements. Tecu.mseh was a formi-
dable enemy ; lie resorted to every artifice to stir up the minds
of the Indians against us. Of an active and restless character,
he visited the most distant nations, and endeavoured to rouse
them by his powerful eloquence. He also assailed tlie super-
stitious minds of his countrymen, by means of his brother, a
kind of conjuror, called "the Prophet." He liad received as-
surances from the British of such assistance as would enable him
to carry his plans into execution. In the year 1811, a council
was held by governor Harrison, of the territory of Indiana, at
Vincennes, and at which Tecumseh attended, to remonstrate

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Marie) BrackenridgeHistory of the late war between the United States and Great Britain: → online text (page 2 of 32)