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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
Chapter VII. An Abuse of Hospitality
by Johnson, Allen


While Captain Bainbridge was eating his heart out in the Pasha's prison at Tripoli, his thoughts reverting constantly to his lost frigate, he reminded Commodore Preble, with whom he was allowed to correspond, that "the greater part of our crew consists of English subjects not naturalized in America." This incidental remark comes with all the force of a revelation to those who have fondly imagined that the sturdy jack-tars who manned the first frigates were genuine American sea-dogs. Still more disconcerting is the information contained in a letter from the Secretary of the Treasury to President Jefferson, some years later, to the effect that after 1803 American tonnage increased at the rate of seventy thousand a year, but that of the four thousand seamen required to man this growing mercantile marine, fully one-half were British subjects, presumably deserters. How are these uncomfortable facts to be explained? Let a third piece of information be added. In a report of Admiral Nelson, dated 1803, in which he broaches a plan for manning the British navy, it is soberly stated that forty-two thousand British seamen deserted "in the late war." Whenever a large convoy assembled at Portsmouth, added the Admiral, not less than a thousand seamen usually deserted from the navy.

The slightest acquaintance with the British navy when Nelson was winning immortal glory by his victory at Trafalgar must convince the most sceptical that his seamen for the most part were little better than galley slaves. Life on board these frigates was well-nigh unbearable. The average life of a seaman, Nelson reckoned, was forty-five years. In this age before processes of refrigeration had been invented, food could not be kept edible on long voyages, even in merchantmen. Still worse was the fare on men-of-war. The health of a crew was left to Providence. Little or no forethought was exercised to prevent disease; the commonest matters of personal hygiene were neglected; and when disease came the remedies applied were scarcely to be preferred to the disease. Discipline, always brutal, was symbolized by the cat-o'-nine-tails. Small wonder that the navy was avoided like the plague by every man and seaman.

Yet a navy had to be maintained: it was the cornerstone of the Empire. And in all the history of that Empire the need of a navy was never stronger than in these opening years of the nineteenth century. The practice of impressing able men for the royal navy was as old as the reign of Elizabeth. The press gang was an odious institution of long standing--a terror not only to rogue and vagabond but to every able-bodied seafaring man and waterman on rivers, who was not exempted by some special act. It ransacked the prisons, and carried to the navy not only its victims but the germs of fever which infested public places of detention. But the press gang harvested its greatest crop of seamen on the seas. Merchantmen were stopped at sea, robbed of their able sailors, and left to limp short-handed into port. A British East Indiaman homeward bound in 1802 was stripped of so many of her crew in the Bay of Biscay that she was unable to offer resistance to a French privateer and fell a rich victim into the hands of the enemy. The necessity of the royal navy knew no law and often defeated its own purpose.

Death or desertion offered the only way of escape to the victim of the press gang. And the commander of a British frigate dreaded making port almost as much as an epidemic of typhus. The deserter always found American merchantmen ready to harbor him. Fair wages, relatively comfortable quarters, and decent treatment made him quite ready to take any measures to forswear his 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, certificates of citizenship could be bought for a song in any American seaport, where shysters drove a thrifty traffic in bogus documents. Provided the English navy took the precaution to have the description in his certificate tally with his personal appearance, and did not let his tongue betray him, he was reasonably safe from capture.

Facing the palpable fact that British seamen were deserting just when they were most needed and were making American merchantmen and frigates their asylum, the British naval commanders, with no very nice regard for legal distinctions, extended their search for deserters to the decks of American vessels, whether in British waters or on the high seas. If in time of war, they reasoned, they could stop a neutral ship on the high seas, search her for contraband of war, and condemn ship and cargo in a prize court if carrying contraband, why might they not by the same token search a vessel for British deserters and impress them into service again? Two considerations seem to justify this reasoning: the trickiness of the smart Yankees who forged citizenship papers, and the indelible character of British allegiance. Once an Englishman always an Englishman, by Jove! Your hound of a sea-dog might try to talk through his nose like a Yankee, you know, and he might shove a dirty bit of paper at you, but he couldn't shake off his British citizenship if he wanted to! This was good English law, and if it wasn't recognized by other nations so much the worse for them. As one of these redoubtable British captains put it, years later: "'Might makes right' is the guiding, practical maxim among nations and ever will be, so long as powder and shot exist, with money to back them, and energy to wield them." Of course, there were hair-splitting fellows, plenty of them, in England and the States, who told you that it was one thing to seize a vessel carrying contraband and have her condemned by judicial process in a court of admiralty, and quite another thing to carry British subjects off the decks of a merchantman flying a neutral flag; but if you knew the blasted rascals were deserters what difference did it make? Besides, what would become of the British navy, if you listened to all the fine-spun arguments of landsmen? And if these stalwart blue-water Britishers could have read what Thomas Jefferson was writing at this very time, they would have classed him with the armchair critics who had no proper conception of a sailor's duty. "I hold the right of expatriation," wrote the President, "to be inherent in every man by the laws of nature, and incapable of being rightfully taken away from him even by the united will of every other person in the nation."

In the year 1805, while President Jefferson was still the victim of his overmastering passion, and disposed to cultivate the good will of England, if thereby he might obtain the Floridas, unforeseen commercial complications arose which not only blocked the way to a better understanding in Spanish affairs but strained diplomatic relations to the breaking point. News reached Atlantic seaports that American merchantmen, which had hitherto engaged with impunity in the carrying trade between Europe and the West Indies, had been seized and condemned in British admiralty courts. Every American shipmaster and owner at once lifted up his voice in indignant protest; and all the latent hostility to their old enemy revived. Here were new orders-in-council, said they: the leopard cannot change his spots. England is still England--the implacable enemy of neutral shipping. "Never will neutrals be perfectly safe till free goods make free ships or till England loses two or three great naval battles," declared the Salem Register.

The recent seizures were not made by orders-in-council, however, but in accordance with a decision recently handed down by the court of appeals in the case of the ship Essex. Following a practice which had become common in recent years, the Essex had sailed with a cargo from Barcelona to Salem and thence to Havana. On the high seas she had been captured, and then taken to a British port, where ship and cargo were condemned because the voyage from Spain to her colony had been virtually continuous, and by the so-called Rule of 1756, direct trade between a European state and its colony was forbidden to neutrals in time of war when such trade had not been permitted in time of peace. Hitherto, the British courts had inclined to the view that when goods had been landed in a neutral country and duties paid, the voyage had been broken. Tacitly a trade that was virtually direct had been countenanced, because the payment of duties seemed evidence enough that the cargo became a part of the stock of the neutral country and, if reshipped, was then a bona fide neutral cargo. Suddenly English merchants and shippers woke to the fact that they were often victims of deception. Cargoes would be landed in the United States, duties ostensibly paid, and the goods ostensibly imported, only to be reshipped in the same bottoms, with the connivance of port officials, either without paying any real duties or with drawbacks. In the case of the Essex the court of appeals cut directly athwart these practices by going behind the prima facie payment and inquiring into the intent of the voyage. The mere touching at a port without actually importing the cargo into the common stock of the country did not alter the nature of the voyage. The crucial point was the intent, which the court was now and hereafter determined to ascertain by examination of facts. The court reached the indubitable conclusion that the cargo of the Essex had never been intended for American markets. The open-minded historian must admit that this was a fair application of the Rule of 1756, but he may still challenge the validity of the rule, as all neutral countries did, and the wisdom of the monopolistic impulse which moved the commercial classes and the courts of England to this decision.[*]

[* Professor William E. Lingelbach in a notable article on "England and Neutral Trade" in "The Military Historian and Economist" (April, 1917) has pointed out the error committed by almost every historian from Henry Adams down, that the Essex decision reversed previous rulings of the court and was not in accord with British law.]

Had the impressment of seamen and the spoliation of neutral commerce occurred only on the high seas, public resentment would have mounted to a high pitch in the United States; but when British cruisers ran into American waters to capture or burn French vessels, and when British men-of-war blockaded ports, detaining and searching--and at times capturing--American vessels, indignation rose to fever heat. The blockade of New York Harbor by two British frigates, the Cambrian and the Leander, exasperated merchants beyond measure. On board the Leander was a young midshipman, Basil Hall, who in after years described the activities of this execrated frigate.

"Every morning at daybreak, we set about arresting the progress of all the vessels we saw, firing of guns to the right and left to make every ship that was running in heave to, or wait until we had leisure to send a boat on board 'to see, in our lingo, 'what she was made of.' I have frequently known a dozen, and sometimes a couple of dozen, ships lying a league or two off the port, losing their fair wind, their tide, and worse than all their market, for many hours, sometimes the whole day, before our search was completed."[*]

[* "Fragments of Voyages and Travels," quoted by Henry Adams, in "History of the United States", vol. III, p. 92.]

One day in April, 1806, the Leander, trying to halt a merchantman that she meant to search, fired a shot which killed the helmsman of a passing sloop. The boat sailed on to New York with the mangled body; and the captain, brother of the murdered man, lashed the populace into a rage by his mad words. Supplies for the frigates were intercepted, personal violence was threatened to any British officers caught on shore, the captain of the Leander was indicted for murder, and the funeral of the murdered sailor was turned into a public demonstration. Yet nothing came of this incident, beyond a proclamation by the President closing the ports of the United States to the offending frigates and ordering the arrest of the captain of the Leander wherever found. After all, the death of a common seaman did not fire the hearts of farmers peacefully tilling their fields far beyond hearing of the Leander's guns.

A year full of troublesome happenings passed; scores of American vessels were condemned in British admiralty courts, and American seamen were impressed with increasing frequency, until in the early summer of 1807 these manifold grievances culminated in an outrage that shook even Jefferson out of his composure and evoked a passionate outcry for war from all parts of the country.

While a number of British war vessels were lying in Hampton Roads watching for certain French frigates which had taken refuge up Chesapeake Bay, they lost a number of seamen by desertion under peculiarly annoying circumstances. In one instance a whole boat's crew made off under cover of night to Norfolk and there publicly defied their commander. Three deserters from the British frigate Melampus had enlisted on the American frigate Chesapeake, which had just been fitted out for service in the Mediterranean; but on inquiry these three were proven to be native Americans who had been impressed into British service. Unfortunately inquiry did disclose one British deserter who had enlisted on the Chesapeake, a loud-mouthed tar by the name of Jenkin Ratford. These irritating facts stirred Admiral Berkeley at Halifax to highhanded measures. Without waiting for instructions, he issued an order to all commanders in the North Atlantic Squadron to search the Chesapeake for deserters, if she should be encountered on the high seas. This order of the 1st of June should be shown to the captain of the Chesapeake as sufficient authority for searching her.

On June 22, 1807, the Chesapeake passed unsuspecting between the capes on her way to the Mediterranean. She was a stanch frigate carrying forty guns and a crew of 375 men and boys; but she was at this time in a distressing state of unreadiness, owing to the dilatoriness and incompetence of the naval authorities at Washington. The gundeck was littered with lumber and odds and ends of rigging; the guns, though loaded, were not all fitted to their carriages; and the crew was untrained. As the guns had to be fired by slow matches or by loggerheads heated red-hot, and the ammunition was stored in the magazine, the frigate was totally unprepared for action. Commodore Barron, who commanded the Chesapeake, counted on putting her into fighting trim on the long voyage across the Atlantic.

Just ahead of the Chesapeake as she passed out to sea, was the Leopard, a British frigate of fifty-two guns, which was apparently on the lookout for suspicious merchantmen. It was not until both vessels were eight miles or more southeast of Cape Henry that the movements of the Leopard began to attract attention. At about half-past three in the afternoon she came within hailing distance and hove to, announcing that she had dispatches for the commander. The Chesapeake also hove to and answered the hail, a risky move considering that she was unprepared for action and that the Leopard lay to the windward. But why should the commander of the American frigate have entertained suspicions?

A boat put out from the Leopard, bearing a petty officer, who delivered a note enclosing Admiral Berkeley's order and expressing the hope that "every circumstance . . . may be adjusted in a manner that the harmony subsisting between the two countries may remain undisturbed." Commodore Barron replied that he knew of no British deserters on his vessel and declined in courteous terms to permit his crew to be mustered by any other officers but their own. The messenger departed, and then, for the first time entertaining serious misgivings, Commodore Barron ordered his decks cleared for action. But before the crew could bestir themselves, the Leopard drew near, her men at quarters. The British commander shouted a warning, but Barron, now thoroughly alarmed, replied, "I don't hear what you say." The warning was repeated, but again Barron to gain time shouted that he could not hear. The Leopard then fired two shots across the bow of the Chesapeake, and almost immediately without parleying further--she was now within two hundred feet of her victim--poured a broadside into the American vessel.

Confusion reigned on the Chesapeake. The crew for the most part showed courage, but they were helpless, for they could not fire a gun for want of slow matches or loggerheads. They crowded about the magazine clamoring in vain for a chance to defend the vessel; they yelled with rage at their predicament. Only one gun was discharged and that was by means of a live coal brought up from the galley after the Chesapeake had received a third broadside and Commodore Barron had ordered the flag to be hauled down to spare further slaughter. Three of his crew had already been killed and eighteen wounded, himself among the number. The whole action lasted only fifteen minutes.

Boarding crews now approached and several British officers climbed to the deck of the Chesapeake and mustered her crew. Among the ship's company they found the alleged deserters and, hiding in the coal-hole, the notorious Jenkin Ratford. These four men they took with them, and the Leopard, having fulfilled her instructions, now suffered the Chesapeake to limp back to Hampton Roads. "For the first time in their history," writes Henry Adams,[*] "the people of the United States learned, in June, 1807, the feeling of a true national emotion. Hitherto every public passion had been more or less partial and one-sided; . . . but the outrage committed on the Chesapeake stung through hidebound prejudices, and made democrat and aristocrat writhe alike."

[* History of the United States, vol. IV, p. 27.]

Had President Jefferson chosen to go to war at this moment, he would have had a united people behind him, and he was well aware that he possessed the power of choice. "The affair of the Chesapeake put war into my hand," he wrote some years later. "I had only to open it and let havoc loose." But Thomas Jefferson was not a martial character. The State Governors, to be sure, were requested to have their militia in readiness, and the Governor of Virginia was desired to call such companies into service as were needed for the defense of Norfolk. The President referred in indignant terms to the abuse of the laws of hospitalitv and the "outrage" committed by the British commander; but his proclamation only ordered all British armed vessels out of American waters and forbade all intercourse with them if they remained. The tone of the proclamation was so moderate as to seem pusillanimous. John Randolph called it an apology. Thomas Jefferson did not mean to have war. With that extraordinary confidence in his own powers, which in smaller men would be called smug conceit, he believed that he could secure disavowal and honorable reparation for the wrong committed; but he chose a frail intermediary when he committed this delicate mission to James Monroe.

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