It was 1812 and America was on the brink of war with her erstwhile parent, Great Britain. Reading through the Niles Register of that year gives one a real sense of the mood of the American people. Although some of the patriotic fervor was short-lived, and some began to dub it “Mr. Madison’s War”, in early 1812, Americans were plenty ticked. This letter from English pamphleteer William Cobbett to the Prince Regent, illustrates one of the reasons for America’s pugnacious attitude, the continued impressment of its citizens by the British Royal Navy.
Cobbett was something of a radical in England and paid the price for his criticism of the government and may have written this letter from his prison cell in Newgate prison (not a nice place). But the letter brings home the magnitude and injustice of the practice.
Readers of American history might know that impressment was a key source of contention between American and England both before and after the Revolution. What most probably do not realize is what it meant. In 1810 (according the article) William Lyman was the U.S. Consul in London and suggested that at any given time approximately 14000 Americans were serving under duress in the Royal Navy! This was not an easy life. Those who have read Patrick O’Brien’s phenomenal Aubrey/Maturin series will recognize the phrase “flogged ’round the fleet.” Although it never occurred in any of O’Brien’s stories, this was a real practice reserved for deserters. Basically a captured escapee would be passed from ship to ship and flogged by the bosun (botswain) in each. Depending on the number of ships in a squadron, the luckless deserter might not survive.
Cobbett makes an impassioned argument that America was no longer a colony, and argues against the continuation of the practice. It wasn’t until 1815 that Britain discontinued the practice, although impressment was one of the items that Albert Gallatin agreed to defer resolving and is not mentioned in the Treaty of Ghent which concluded the War of 1812.
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