American History Stories—Volume III. - Mara L. Pratt

The War of 1812

"Taxation without representation" was the cause of the American Revolution. A long phrase for little folks to remember, but easy enough after you understand what it means.

I shall have to ask you to remember a longer phrase, but I will try to explain it to you so that it will be as easy as that giving the cause of the Revolution.

The cause of this second war with England, was "the impressments of American sailors and the capturing of our vessels."

Now let us see if we can understand what "impressments of American sailors"  means.

Of course, England did not feel very kindly towards the American colonies after the Revolution. Not only had she met with a most humiliating defeat from those whom she had laughed at and called barnyard soldiers, clod-hopper militia, and many other such contemptuous names, but she had also lost a very valuable colony, one that would have been a source of great wealth to her as it grew in numbers and in power.

Every since the Constitution had been formed, and the American Nation had seemed so full of success, England had been doing everything possible to injure American commerce. England had for a long, long time called herself the "Mistress of the Sea," and had prided herself on having the finest navy in the world.

The United States, dreading to go to war again, had borne many an insult both from England and from France. But when the English began impressing  our sailors,—that was a little more than we could endure.

It had long been the custom in England to fill up their ship's crews by "impressment," as they called it. This is the way they went about it. When they could not find enough men who were willing to become sailors, a party of rough men, called the "press-gang," would go upon land, look about for hearty, strong-looking young men, and, when they had found one who seemed likely to make a good sailor, would seize upon him, bind him, and carry him off to a ship.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - III by Mara L. Pratt


Sometimes they did not seize upon these men, but would invite one to drink with them; and then when they had made him drunk, would carry him off to their vessel, throw him into the hold and leave him there until he became sober. Many a poor lad has awakened from his stupor to find himself on shipboard, away from home and friends, bound on a voyage which was, perhaps, to last for years. If he refused to work, he was whipped until he cried for mercy. The "press-gang" was indeed the terror of all Europe. You see now what impressment of sailors  means; just simply this: stealing them and forcing them to become sailors on English ships.

And now, when I tell you that thousands of Americans had been seized in just this way by these English ships, do you wonder that again America declared war against England?

It was just at the close of Jefferson's Administration that an event occurred that aroused the Americans to act at once.

As the Chesapeake, one of our vessels, was crossing the ocean, it was ordered by the Leopard, an English vessel, to stop.

"I order you to stand and be searched," said the English officer.

"What do you expect to find?" asked Captain Barron.

"I search for English sailors," was the reply.

"We have no English sailors on board, and we shall not stop," answered our captain.

"You are all Englishmen, and in the name of the English government, I demand that you be searched." Immediately the English ship fired upon the Chesapeake, killing and wounding several of the crew. Three sailors were taken from the vessel and forced to serve as slaves. Such outrages as this were enough to stir the anger of any nation; and if ever war was right, it was right in such a time as this.

But in spite of all this the Federalists were opposed to war with England. They declared that if war with England was entered into, the United States would surely fall into the power of France, who was still at war with England.

It was just here that Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, two of the greatest statesmen that America ever had, came into notice. Henry Clay was the leader of the Federalists, and was opposed to the war; John C. Calhoun was the leader of the Republicans, and was in favor of war.

Thus matters stood, when, in June, 1812, Congress declared war with England.

Great was the joy in the hearts of these impressed sailors on the English ships. Many of them at once refused to pull another rope on board a ship belonging to a nation at war with their own country.

"Will you do your duty on this ship?" asked one captain of an American who was suffering under the lash for refusal to work the ship. "Yes sir," answered the man, with his back bleeding at every pore. "It is my duty to blow up this ship, an enemy to my country, and if I get a chance, I'll do it."

The captain looked round in astonishment. "I think this man must be an American," he said. "No English sailor would talk like that. He is probably crazy, and you may untie him and let him go."

Over twenty-five hundred Americans who had been impressed and who thus refused to serve, were sent to prison in England, where they were kept in the most wretched imprisonment until the war closed.

Many of the men were flogged—some of them till they dropped dead—but they showed the same brave spirit that they had shown years before in the Revolution. One would suppose that after being so completely defeated by the American colonies England would hardly have cared to go to war with the American States.