America in the Age of Napoleon
Copyright © 2005-2020, Henry J. Sage

“Wherever wood can swim, there I find this cursed flag of England.” —Napoleon

As one historian has noted, “The history of the country between 1803 and 1812 is the story of attempts to keep both peace and dignity.” The first four American presidents, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, all had to deal with the impact of the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon. Historian Thomas A. Bailey coined the phrase, “Europe's distresses spelled Americas successes,” but it also worked the other way. America got whipped about by the European turmoil, even while profiting from wars as a trading neutral. The controversy in Europe even touched American domestic politics.

As has been suggested elsewhere in these pages, the United States was very fortunate that the French Revolution did not start earlier than it did, or, looking at it another way, it is fortunate that the Constitution was written and the government underway before the French Revolution began. As it was, the events of the French Revolution dominated world affairs and to a great extent American domestic politics from the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in 1792 to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.

napoleonThe enormous impact of the French Revolution and Empire affected the entire western world, and the changes it wrought lasted long after it was over. The Revolution began in 1789, the same year that the United States government began to function under the Constitution. Even though the American Revolution was a catalyst for the events in France, in reshaping its government, it went one step further than the American Revolution by overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a republic. Thomas Jefferson was the American ambassador from 1785 to 1789, and he served as a quasi-consultant to the developing events in Paris. A common triggering event between the American and French revolutions is that as with the British, France was deeply in debt as a result of its many wars. To address the issue, Louis called for a meeting of the Estates-General, which hed three divisions: the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of France. The structure favored the nobility and the church, byt when it vonvened, the commoners took over. They attacked the Bastille and declared the rights of man and citizen. The struggle for political control continued for several years until King Louis XVI and the royal family were arrested and Louis and Marie Antoinette were executed.

During the internal struggles within France, fighting ensued, and Napoleon Bonaparte, as a young officer, proved successful in several of the battles within French borders and eventually rose to command the French Army in Paris. From that key position he could observe, interact with and eventually influence political leaders. He was eventually named the First Consul of France, and as a successful political infighter he maneuvered himself into the position where in 1803 he could declare himself Emperor Napoleon I. After a brief lull in foreign fighting, Napoleon resumed war against the allied nations in 1803. His armies roved all over Europe, from Spain to Egypt, to the continent and eventually to Russia.

On the battlefield, Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most skillful and successful military commanders in the history of the world. His French armies overran most of Europe, fought in Egypt and penetrated deep into Russia before succumbing to the Russian army and the Russian winter. But all of central and nelsonsouthern Europe were dominated by Napoleon during the first decade of the 1800s as the French army rolled over everything in its path. While the French possessed a powerful navy, they were challenged at sea by the traditional naval might of the British Empire. The conflict between Napoleon and the British became characterized as a struggle between the tiger and the shark. The royal Navy, led during this period by Lord Horatio Nelson, was well-nigh invincible on the seas. In the three great battles of Trafalgar, Copenhagen, and the Nile, Nelson crushed the Danish and French fleets and controlled the Atlantic and Mediterranean for most of the time when Napoleon was in power.

During the early years of the fighting, a dangerous international situation existed, but America was nevertheless free to pursue its own lucrative trading interests as a neutral. But as the turmoil moved on, the quasi-war with France erupted, and later struggles with the British kept dragging America closer to war. Although pro-British (Hamilton) and pro-French (Jefferson) sentiments existed during the early years, Americans felt detached and aloof from the struggles, if not completely isolationist, until the problems escalated during Jefferson's second term. From 1795 to 1805 friendship with Great Britain prevailed despite incidents at sea. Further, the XYZ and Genet affairs and the Quasi War were still fresh in American memory. As president, Jefferson “always sought a bloodless substitute for war” and preferred “peaceable coercions.” Commercial coercion could be an effective tool in international politics. 

Foreign Affairs under Jefferson. Napoleon resumed war against the allied nations in 1803, which created a dangerous situation, but left America free to pursue its own interests. American neutrality promised lucrative trade opportunities; there was no direct threat to American security from the fighting in Europe. America was the most important neutral dring the struggles in Europe, making huge profits on food and other provisions by way of the high volume of neutral trade that lasted for decades. Under the British Rule of 1756 ports not open in peacetime were not open in war, and peacetime rules still applied. All goods had to be legally imported into the United States before being reshipped, but violations were hard to prove or establish. American traders took advantage of all legal loopholes, and then some, as they had done during the colonial era. American merchant captains used the principle of the broken voyage—to take advantage of loophole, they brought goods from British and French colonies to the the United States, then reshipped them as U.S. goods.

As an example of the above policy, in 1800 the U.S.S. Polly brought sugar from Cuba to a port in Massachusetts, then shipped it to Spain. In 1805 under the Essex ruling, the mere payment of import duties did not constitute evidence of good faith importation: the good had to be completely unloaded. The British demanded more proof that the goods were in fact imported—if the ship put into an American port, it had to demonstrate that it was not a continuous voyage, but it is hard to prove a negative. Hard to prove a negative. As tensions escalated, in 1806 Non-importation of certain goods was adopted. England proclaimed a blockade from the Elbe River to Brest. 

Jefferson sent former ambassador James Monroe to join Ambassador Pinckney to try to work out a new treaty to replace Jay's Treaty. Jefferson vetoed the treaty, however, because there was no impressment clause, although it did include concessions on broken voyages. During that time, British ships hovered off the American coast, captured and sent violating merchantmen Nova Scotia. Many were seized after the Essex ruling. The game got rougher as H.M.S. Leander “accidentally” hit a U.S. ship, killed first mate John Pierce, whose body was paraded around New York City to a great hue and cry. At last Pres. Jefferson authorized 263 coastal gunboats and began rather modest military preparations. He continued, however, to resist the impulse to go to war.

The Impressment Controversy

The United States as a neutral nation and sought to contain a new its trade and commerce with the rest of the world even as the warring nations began to place restrictions on neutral traffic. French and British sea captains preyed upon American shipping, and although both were viewed in essentially the same light by the American government, the fact that Great Britain dominated the seas made her depredations more troublesome than those of the French. Furthermore, since the British depended so heavily upon sea power for their survival, they faced constant pressure to keep fleets well manned, a difficult task because life in the Royal Navy and was known to be harsh and demanding, and British sailors were prone to desert their ships. There were no volunteers in the Royal Navy; the food pay and quarters were often unsatisfactory, and discipline was harsh. Press gangs were employed to round up potential sailors from the slums of British cities, a tactic that had been in use for over 400 years to keep the Royal Navy up the strength.

impressmentAmerican merchants, always looking for experienced sailors for their crews, not only welcomed but often encouraged British sailors to desert to the American Navy. The result was that the press gangs that forced reluctant young men into the Navy with impunity, began to point the finger at deserted British sailors serving in American vessels. Royal Navy cruisers began stopping American ships and “impressing” sailors identified as deserters back into His Majesty’s service. The fact that some of those sailors might have become American citizens, or in fact had not actually deserted, made little difference to the impressing gangs. Times were desperate, and desperate measures were called for. Despite American protests, the British operated at will on the seas, and hundreds of American seamen were impressed.

Impressment was seen by Americans as a violation of their neutral rights; the British promised not to take American citizens, but their idea of citizenship was not the same as ours: "Once an Englishman, always an Englishman" was their motto, and that was especially true in time of war. Americans resisted, but they were not innocent in the matter. They encouraged desertions through enticements such as providing phony citizenship papers for one dollar, better food and wages, and so on. When citizenship issues were taken to court, witnesses could be paid to stand up in court and swear, “Your Honor, I've known this man from his cradle” when they had met him hours earlier. They also advertised for sailors in neutral ports, promising higher wages and better treatment.

There were a total of 42,000 desertions in the Royal Navy by 1801. At one point twelve British ships were stuck in Norfolk, Virginia due to desertions. British deserters were plentiful enough to make up for American losses via impressment, but Americans were building 70,000 tons of shipping each year and needed 4,200 sailors per year until 1808 to man merchant vessels. The British violated even their own rules when they got desperate. Around 8,000 bona fide U.S. Citizens were taken by force, which hurt shipping interests, families, etc. Royal Navy cruisers began stopping American ships and “impressing” sailors identified as deserters back into His Majesty's service. The fact that some of those sailors might have become American citizens, or in fact had not actually deserted at all, made little difference to the press gangs. The British idea of citizenship was not the same as the American view: “Once an Englishman, always an Englishman” was their motto, and that was especially true in time of war. Times were desperate, and desperate measures were called for. The Americans protested, and some releases were gained, but it took time. The U.S. claimed that the American flag created de facto American territory and called British practices “nautical slavery.”

chesapeake-leopardThe impressment controversy continued more or less unabated until 1807, when the British went to far. The captain of H.M.S. Leopard, prowling off the American coast, after exchanging apparently respectful signals with the American warship U.S.S. Chesapeake, demanded the right to come aboard and search for deserters. When the American Captain Barron refused, the British opened fire, killing three Americans and wounding eighteen. Americans were outraged, but President Jefferson was unwilling to go to war over the issue and demanded an apology and reparations, which the British duly offered. Ten days after incident Jefferson closed all American ports to the Royal Navy. (Chesapeake and Leopard at left.)

Berlin and Milan Decrees. During this time other issues also impacted the United States. With his Berlin Decree Napoleon instituted what was known as his “Continental System,” which was essentially a blockade of England that closed all Continental ports to British ships, or ships that traded with the British. He decreed that any ships which followed British rules was deemed to be a British ship and was therefore a legitimate target of the French Navy, which left American ships' captains between a rock and a hard place. French privateers felt free to capture any ship that the British had searched. When the British ruled in 1807 that ships bound for Europe had to stop and move their cargoes through England, France declared that all such goods were British property

In 1807 Napoleon issued the Milan Decree to enforce the Berlin decree. The two acts constituted open economic warfare against Great Britain. When the British ruled in 1807 that ships bound for Europe had to stop and move their cargoes through England, France declared that all such goods were British property and seized them accordingly. As America was the most important neutral nation, American ships were directly affected. The restrictions emanating from both France and Great Britain inevitably rendered cargoes that did manage to evade the blockaders more valuable than ever, with predictable results.

Jefferson's Embargo. In order to avert further confrontations with the French or British, President Jefferson then ordered Congress to put an end to all foreign trade with the 1807 Embargo Act, which backfired. Despite the fact that during the ongoing conflict merchants were being harassed by both the British and French, the wartime situation had driven prices of goods up to such an extent that merchants could make a tidy profit even if some of their ships were captured. Secretary of State James Madison defended the embargo as a positive instrument of policy, not a backing down. Thus New England revolted against the embargo and labeled it the “Dambargo.” There the matter stood as Jefferson's prepared to turn the presidential office over to his hand-picked successor, Secretary Madison.

The Embargo Act:

Be it enacted, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that an embargo be, and hereby is laid on all ships and vessels in the ports and places within the limits or jurisdiction of the United States, cleared or not cleared, bound to any foreign port or place; and that no clearance be furnished to any ship or vessel bound to such foreign port or place, except vessels under the immediate direction of the President of the United States; and that the President be authorized to give such instructions to the officers of the revenue, and of the navy and revenue cutters of the United States, as shall appear best adapted for carrying the same into full effect; provided, that nothing herein contained shall be construed to prevent the departure of any foreign ship or vessel, either in ballast or with the goods, wares, and merchandise on board of such foreign ship or vessel. . . .

Section 2. And be it further enacted, that during the continuance of this act, no registered or sea letter vessel, having on board goods, wares, and merchandise, shall be allowed to depart from one port of the United States to any other within the same, unless the master, owner, consignee, or factor of such vessel shall first give bond, with one or more sureties to the collector of the district from which she is bound to depart, in a sum of double the value of the vessel and cargo, that the said goods, wares, or merchandise shall be relanded in some port of the United States, dangers of the seas excepted, which bond, and also a certificate from the collector where the same may be relanded, shall by the collector respectively be transmitted to the secretary of the treasury. All armed vessels possessing public commissions from any foreign power are not to be considered as liable to the embargo laid by this act.

Aftermath of the Embargo

Jefferson's embargo had a devastating effect on New England. The Northeast was in turmoil, and the New York-Canadian border was in a state of insurrection. In calling for the embargo, Jefferson overestimated the patience of his fellow Americans. Talk of secession arose in New England, and the embargo also caused much antagonism in New England—textile workers who were hurt but had no political power. In 1809 Congress rebels and repeals the embargo. It had some good results; drove capital and labor into manufacturing, relieved impressment, bought time. Orders in Council eventually repealed.

The end of Jefferson's two terms left the country much larger because of the Louisiana Purchase, but in other respects scarcely better off than in 1800. True, the Republican victory in 1800 had the effect of diffusing some of the political antagonism that characterized the 1790s, but Jefferson proved that he could be just as partisan as his predecessor Adams had been, despite the lofty words of his first inaugural address. Jefferson did not want to be remembered on his gravestone for anything he accomplished during his eight years in the White House, and that is probably an accurate judgment. Jefferson is on Mt. Rushmore, and no doubt deserves to be, but more for his thinking and intellectual leadership than for his governance. In any case he passed a healthy if somewhat impotent nation along to his successor, his friend James Madison.

Sage American Home Jeffersonian Home Madison's Presidency Updated June 6, 2020