How Trade regulations and Impressment lead to the war of 1812


    The war of 1812 is a touchy subject in history because it was never decided who really won or exactly why The United States decided to face one of the world super powers when they were still an upcoming country. The war lasted 32 months from June of 1812 to February of 1815 and ended up being a tie in both countries eyes. During the war The United States lost their capital and the white house that now holds the grim title of “Burning of Washington.” For many people this war is long forgotten from our history forgotten through time and covered up by much bigger wars in American history like the Civil War and the World Wars. The American people were yelling out for “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.” That was the slogan behind the war and the rallying cry for the American people to pick up their arms and fight the British Empire[1].  That’s why trade restrictions and sailor impressment was the main reason why the United States declared war on the British Empire.  

            America was caught up in a fight between Britain France they tried to stay neutral but could not due to the little respect America regulations were followed by the two world powers. Britain was stealing American sailors from their ship forcing them on their war ships as well as implementing troubling trade restrictions that hindered the counties trade. There were many instances that kept pushing America to war and that was Britain’s roguish behavior towards American and world laws. America attempted to put a stop to Britain’s bullying behavior by implementing trade restrictions to force them to comply and see America as a neutral country in the war between France and Britain.  President Jefferson attempted to shut down trade with Britain multiple times through the Embargo act of 1807 and the non-intercourse act of 1809 but both failed in being taken seriously and enforced. America eventually became tired of being battered around and declared war on Britain. To the American people “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” became the slogan and the meaning of the war of 1812.

            Impressment was a large problem to the American people because men were being taken from ship and forced to join the European military. Britain had to resort to such extremes because it was fighting a war with France and many of its sailors were leaving Britain to sail on American merchant ships because it paid better and the living conditions were a lot better.  So to counter act the “deserters” the English navy started to capture American ships and forcibly remove who they thought to be English sailors and force them into their navy. Eventually this became bad enough to where even Americans that were suspected of being English were taken. The number of navy personal grew from 36,000 in 1792 to around 120,000 men in 1805. This created uproar in the American community because trading became a hassle there are even accounts of so many men being taken that the ships could not sail back to the Americas because they were so shorthanded. Instead of resorting to armed opposition president Jefferson tried to fix the problem with diplomacy. He sent James Monroe and William Pinkney to make a deal with the British over the impressment problem but the Britain’s would not budge and continued to practice impressment. The two men came back with a treaty so insulting that Jefferson did not even bother sending it into senate.[2] There are multiple accounts of ships being boarded and man being taken from their crew. One such incident stands out above all. The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair was a naval engagement that took place off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia on the 22nd of June 1807. There were only two ships involved the British warship HMS Leopard and an American Frigate USS Chesapeake[3]. The Leopard pursed and fired upon the Chesapeake to retrieve deserters form the Royal Navy. After some cannon fire and the inability to fire back the captain of the Chesapeake James Barron surrendered the ship to the Leopard. [4] The British then boarded the Chesapeake and selected the four men that deserted the British navy. After all was said and done the Chesapeake was riddled with cannon holes 3 American men died and 8 were wounded.[5] This sparked much patriotism in the American community many called for retaliation. The British navy was now engaging American ships of the shores of their own country and the public joined in opposition to British navy ships.

It was not only impressment that sent America in the war of 1812 but trade problems as well with the war raging on in between France and England, America tried to stay neutral and trade with both. England and France imposed trade restrictions to try and weaken each other and this would also effect American trading and put its neutrality into question. When it was shown that American trade laws were not being taken seriously by Britain or France, President Jefferson and Secretary James Madison attempted to create economic sanctions in the 1790s. Madison attempted to call for an embargo in 1805 and he was convinced it would “Force all the nations having colonies in this quarter of the globe to respect our rights”.[6] But it was never adopted. It wasn’t until Jefferson’s second administration he created the Embargo act of 1807 it was the Chesapeake incident that drove him to implement such a crippling economic action. Instead of going to war he tried a different route with commercial ware fare with the embargo.  The embargo was implemented by Thomas Jefferson on December 22, 1807 to force Great Britain and France to change their economic policies that were debilitating the American Economy. He intended for it end the seizure of American goods and seamen as well as for them to respect the neutrality the United States has with each country[7]. When the Embargo was implemented it did very little to the Europeans due to the loop holes that countries found and the constant practice of smuggling. The embargo ended up doing more damage to the American economy then the British and French economy. The embargo act of 1807 has been seen as a major flop due to the little the United States could do to enforce it due to having a small naval military force it was easy for merchants to smuggle and trade. With the poor reception from the American people and the fact that the bill affected them more than its intended target made the bill very unfavorable and the bill ended up only lasting 2 years. Before Jefferson left office he attempted to cripple the English with the Non-Intercourse act of 1809 were it repealed the embargo on all American ships except for those heading to British and French ports. Yet again this act did very little due to that it could not be enforced[8].

[1] Gilje, Paul A. Free Trade and Sailors' Rights in the War of 1812 West Nyack, NY, USA Cambridge University Press 03/2013


[2] David Edwin Harrell, Jr.,Edwin S.Gaustad, John B. Boles, Sally Griffth, Randall M.Miller,and Randell B.Woods Unto a Good Land vol.1  Grand Rapids,Michigan Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2005


[3] Robert E. Cray Jr. Remembering the USS Chesapeake: The Politics of Maritime Death and Impressment Journal of the Early Republic Vol. 25, No. 3 (Fall, 2005), pp. 445-474 University of Pennsylvania Press

[4] Henry Adams History of the United States of America During the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson (1890) Charles Scribner's Sons 1890

[5] Henry Adams History of the United States of America During the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson (1890) Charles Scribner's Sons 1890

[6] Donald R. Hickey American Trade Restrictions during the War of 1812 The journal of American history Organization of American Historians 2008-2012


[7] Jeffery A. Frankel The 1807-1809 Embargo Against Great Britain The Journal of Economic History  Cambridge University Press 1982

[8] Donald R. Hickey American Trade Restrictions during the war of 1812 The Journal of American History  Organization of American Historians  2008-2012