Secretary of State Madison Seeks Information on Sending Back Deserters From British Ships
The need to keep the Royal Navy fully manned was never stronger than in the opening years of the 19th century, as the Napoleonic Wars resulted in a lack of qualified seamen just when it was necessary to launch many additional warships. This was exacerbated because privateers, the Navy, and the merchant...
The need to keep the Royal Navy fully manned was never stronger than in the opening years of the 19th century, as the Napoleonic Wars resulted in a lack of qualified seamen just when it was necessary to launch many additional warships. This was exacerbated because privateers, the Navy, and the merchant marine all competed for the same small pool of ordinary and able seamen. The government’s solution: impressment (or forcing men into service). The practice of impressing able men for the Royal Navy was as old as the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The press gang was a terror not only to rogue and vagabond but to every able-bodied seafaring man and river waterman who was not exempted by some special act. It even ransacked the prisons.
But the press gang harvested its greatest crop of seamen on the high seas, as merchantmen were stopped at sea, robbed of their able sailors, and left to limp short-handed into port. Desertion offered the only way of escape to the victim of the press gang, and thousands of sailors deserted from British ships during the war. The problem was much worse when British captains pulled into American ports, as deserter always found the American people ready to harbor them and American merchantmen ready to employ them. Fair wages, relatively comfortable quarters, and decent treatment made sailors ready to forswear allegiance to Britannia. Naturalization papers were easily procured by a few months’ residence in any state of the Union; and in default of legitimate papers, forged certificates of citizenship could be bought for a song in any American seaport.
Facing the palpable fact that British seamen were deserting just when they were most needed and were making American merchantmen and frigates their asylum, in the late 1790’s the British began to use U.S. ships as a supply source. Their naval commanders extended their search for deserters to the decks of American vessels, whether in British waters or on the high seas. Their rationale was that, since in time of war their law permitted the Navy to stop a neutral ship, search her for contraband of war, and if found condemn ship and cargo in a prize court, that same principle would permit them to search a vessel for British deserters and impress them into service again. The British, facing strong U.S. objections that these seizures were a clear violation of neutral rights, went on the diplomatic offensive and tried to place the fault for the controversy on the Americans. They complained to the U.S. State Department that their deserters were improperly being given sanctuary and demanded a halt to this practice. Since Americans were essentially unsympathetic to the British demand, it received a rather tepid reception. In the early years of the Jefferson administration, however, the President sought British cooperation in his attempt to obtain Florida for the United States, and he tried to minimize the controversy over impressment by reducing the number of deserters finding sanctuary on U.S. shores. Pursuant to this policy, in late 1802, Jefferson inserted some conciliatory words about Britain in his State of the Union message, and his Secretary of State, James Madison, set out to determine what, if any, state laws would allow for the return of deserters from foreign ships.
Letter Signed, Department of State, October 19, 1802, to U.S. Attorney for Kentucky Joseph Hamilton Daviess, whom he addresses as “Joseph H. Davis.” “It being occasionally necessary to answer representations and complaints to this Department on the subject of seamen deserting from foreign vessels within the United States, the President thinks it proper that the District Attorneys for the United States report whether any, or what provisions may exist in the laws of the states respectively, by which deserters in such cases may be restored. You will please therefore to transmit this information with respect to the laws of the state of Kentucky, as soon as may be convenient.” The almost apologetic tone of the letter is a surprise for an official communication and indicates how little sympathy the British position had in the U.S.
Whether Jefferson was really considering taking action to mollify Britain or just undertaking this to deflect British pressure, nothing substantial came of it, and in 1805 he gave up as hopeless the idea of enlisting British cooperation in obtaining Florida. Impressment continued as a key issue in the first years of Madison’s presidency and became one of the primary causes of the War of 1812. Recipient Daviess, who married Chief Justice John Marshall’s sister, is said to have been the first lawyer west of the mountains to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. He served as U.S. Attorney for Kentucky from 1800-1806 and in that office brought treason charges against Aaron Burr. Daveiss commanded the dragoons of the Indiana Militia at the Battle of Tippecanoe and was killed in action there.
Frame, Display, Preserve
Each frame is custom constructed, using only proper museum archival materials. This includes:The finest frames, tailored to match the document you have chosen. These can period style, antiqued, gilded, wood, etc. Fabric mats, including silk and satin, as well as museum mat board with hand painted bevels. Attachment of the document to the matting to ensure its protection. This "hinging" is done according to archival standards. Protective "glass," or Tru Vue Optium Acrylic glazing, which is shatter resistant, 99% UV protective, and anti-reflective. You benefit from our decades of experience in designing and creating beautiful, compelling, and protective framed historical documents.Learn more about our Framing Services