In the wake of the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, President Thomas Jefferson Praises the Spirit of the American People “which animates our nation”, and Is Its “sufficient safeguard”

He condemns the violation of American neutrality - the "Events which have so justly excited the sensibilities of our country".

This was the great crisis that saw the first call for war between the United States and Great Britain since the Revolution

The French Revolution led to a series of conflicts in Europe, in which the French were pitted against the great dynastic powers of Europe. When war first flared up in...

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In the wake of the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, President Thomas Jefferson Praises the Spirit of the American People “which animates our nation”, and Is Its “sufficient safeguard”

He condemns the violation of American neutrality - the "Events which have so justly excited the sensibilities of our country".

This was the great crisis that saw the first call for war between the United States and Great Britain since the Revolution

The French Revolution led to a series of conflicts in Europe, in which the French were pitted against the great dynastic powers of Europe. When war first flared up in 1793, these powers, led by Great Britain, but also including Prussia, Austria and others, were trying to reverse the outcome of the revolution and restore the French monarchy. However, French victories and the rise of Napoleon changed the complexion of the situation, and a series of wars resulted, with shifting coalitions, lulls and flare-ups, and the nations of Europe devoting their entire life’s blood to achieve success. These conflicts lasted until 1815, when with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the 22 years of strife ended. Europe would not see another continent-wide war for a century.

The United States, as a major maritime nation trading with all the combatants, was inevitably drawn into the conflict. President Washington issued a Declaration of Neutrality, and Americans tried to sustain this stance. But the desperation of the combatants made this impossible, and the administration of every American president from Washington through Madison was consumed in dealing with this series of crises. There were for two reasons for the intensity of the problems they faced. One was that in this life-and-death struggle, each side wanted to prevent the United States from trading with the other, from providing its enemy with munitions, foodstuffs, and other necessities. France, plagued by massive crop failures and desperately in need of grain and other supplies, commissioned numerous French privateers who both legally and illegally captured cargo from merchant vessels of every flag engaged in foreign trade with Britain. Approximately 300 American ships were captured by the French Navy and privateers under letters of marque issued by the government of France. This almost led to war between the former allies during the Adams administration. The British engaged in the same practice. American trade was profoundly affected by all this.

The second reason was at least as significant: the Royal Navy claimed the right to stop American ships on the high seas, remove seamen alleged to be British subjects, and impress them into service. During the peacetime that preceded the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had about 10,000 men; by the War of 1812, the number had risen to 140,000. Plus, 40,000 more had deserted, some to find work on better-paying American merchant ships. In the late 1790’s, the British began to use U.S. ships as a steady supply source. Their naval commanders stopped American vessels, whether in British waters or on the high seas, and searched their decks. 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. Although this policy of impressment was supposed to reclaim only British subjects, the Royal Navy was hardly careful who in practice they picked up, and moreover the law of Britain defined nationality by birth whereas the United States allowed individuals who had been resident in America for some time to adopt American citizenship. There were, therefore, large numbers of individuals who were British by British law but American by American law. The confusion was compounded by the refusal of Presidents Jefferson and Madison to issue any official citizenship documents: their position was that all persons serving on American ships were to be regarded as US citizens and that no further evidence was required. Between 1806 and 1812 about 6,000 seamen were impressed and taken against their will into the Royal Navy, outraging the American leadership and people, who felt it was an attack on their sovereignty, so dearly bought by the sacrifices of the Revolution just a quarter century before.

This dispute came to the forefront with the Chesapeake Affair, which Americans saw as an insult, and worse, a violation of US neutrality. On June 22, 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard fired on and boarded the American warship USS Chesapeake, which was taken by surprise and could not put up much of a fight. The British killed three and carried off four men they claimed were deserters from the Royal Navy. In fact, only one was a British citizen; the other three were Americans wrongly taken. The Chesapeake–Leopard Affair created an uproar among Americans, and there were strident calls for war with Great Britain (the first such calls since the Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the previous war). Americans showed the fighting spirit of 1776 and volunteered to fight; and militia companies wrote President Jefferson offering their services to the nation. President Jefferson was grateful for the martial spirit thus shown, and moreover intended to use this to diplomatically threaten the British government into some accommodation to the US position.

One of the militia companies tendering its services was from Easton, Pennsylvania. Letter signed as President, Washington, July 22, 1807, to Capt. Abraham Horn Jr., Lieut. Thomas Rogers, Ensign John Deatrich, and the Easton Light Infantry Company of the borough of Easton. In it, he praises their patriotism, and the spirit of the American people. “The offer of your service in support of the rights of your country merits and meets the highest praise, & whenever the moment arrives in which these rights must appeal to the public arm for support, the spirit from which your offer flows, that which animates our nation, will be their sufficient safeguard. To the Legislature will be rendered a faithful account of the events which have so justly excited the sensibilities of our country, of the measures taken to obtain reparation, & of their result, & to their wisdom will belong the course to be ultimately pursued. In the meantime it is our duty to pursue that prescribed by the existing laws, towards which, should your services be requisite, this offer of them will be remembered. I tender you, for your country, the thanks you so justly deserve.” Interestingly, he specifies that the Congress should be looked to for action, rather than the Executive, which is consistent with his philosophy of governance. The body of the letter is in the hand of Jefferson’s secretary, Isaac Coles.

Rogers was the editor of the Northampton Farmer newspaper, and published an account of this militia unit and this letter in its August 8, 1807 issue. He was later a member of the US House of Representatives. Horn led Easton’s First Company, First Rifle Regiment, in the War of 1812. His father had fought in the Revolution, serving in the Pennsylvania Line of the Continental Army.

The British were not, however, contrite, and sought no accommodation. Jefferson acted with restraint as antagonisms mounted, weighing public support for retaliation against the costs and uncertainties of war. In the end, he recommended that Congress respond with commercial warfare, rather than with military mobilization. His response, the Embargo Act, was signed into law on December 22, 1807. This drastic measure precluded American ships from departing for foreign ports. The economic hardship for the belligerent nations was expected to chasten Great Britain and France, and force them to end their molestation of American shipping, respect U.S. neutrality, and cease the policy of impressment. The embargo did not achieve its purpose, but did inflict devastating burdens on the U.S. economy and the American people. In the end, it had to be repealed. Tensions continued to rise between the United States and Great Britain until 1812, when war finally broke out.

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