Three seamen, having deserted from the Melampus, one of the British squadron whose rendezvous was just within the capes of Virginia, enlisted on board the United States frigate Chesapeake, then fitting out at the Washington navy-yard for the Mediterranean. Their surrender was requested by Minister Erskine, but our administration declined, on ample grounds, to comply. We have seen that our government was now offering to forbid the employment of deserters, on reciprocal terms, and as an inducement to some relaxation of impressment on England's part. Without a treaty, as was the case here, no obligation rested upon the United States to surrender deserters from the British navy at all; the more so that, unlike desertions from merchantmen, which are mere breaches of private contract, desertion from a ship of war must have subjected the culprit to the punishment of a court-martial. Inquiries showed, moreover, that all these men were colored, and Americans by birth, two of whom had been pressed into the British service from an American vessel in the Bay of Biscay. To this government the mutual extradition was of very little consequence; and yet, so far from countenancing British desertions, our executive had forbidden the enlistment of persons in the navy known to be British subjects, a prohibition which did not here apply.
Official correspondence closed, but the British captains appear to have stimulated Admiral Berkeley, who commanded, to issue from Halifax an extraordinary order, enabling them to take the law into their own hands. Sailing from Washington in June, and reporting at Norfolk to Commodore Barron for duty, the Chesapeake dropped down to Hampton Roads, and on the morning of the 22d [June, 1807] set sail, having the three colored sailors on board. From the British squadron, the Leopard, a two-decker, mounting about fifty guns, stood out to sea at the same time, preceding the Chesapeake, but keeping her in sight.
The British officers had muttered threats, though giving no clear notice of their intention. Barron, less suspicious than he should have been, proceeded on his course. The Chesapeake mounted only thirty-eight guns, some of which had just been put on board. His crew was not yet drilled to the use of ordnance, his deck was littered, and the vessel was altogether unfit for immediate action. At three o'clock in the afternoon the Leopard bore down and hailed her; and while the Chesapeake lay to, a boat from Captain Humphreys of the Leopard brought his demand for the three alleged deserters from the Melampus. The British lieutenant, who stepped on board, produced likewise, in token of Humphreys's authority, a copy of what purported to be a circular from the admiral at Halifax. That circular, dated June 1, which was now produced for the first time, recited, in an exaggerated strain, that British subjects and deserters had enlisted on board the Chesapeake, and ordered all captains of his command, who should fall in with that frigate at sea, to show these instructions and proceed to search for such deserters, - the pretence being added that the search of a national vessel was according to civilized usage, which permitted the Chesapeake also to make a corresponding search in return.
Commodore Barron, though taken by surprise, made a suitable reply, denying knowledge of any such deserters, and claiming that the crew of a United States war-vessel could only be mustered by their own officers. But in his excitement he seemed to forget the sure consequence of such a response, and made his preparations for action quite tardily. The Leopard's ports were triced up when she appeared in sight, and while the lieutenant waited half an hour for his reply, the vessel had worked into an advantageous position.
Humphreys, upon the return of his boat with Barron's reply, called through a trumpet, "Commodore Barron must be aware that the orders of the admiral must be obeyed." Barron did not understand, and this was repeated. A cannon-shot across the bows of the Chesapeake followed these ominous words, soon another, and then a whole broadside. While our unfortunate frigate was exposed for twelve minutes to a raking fire, a vain effort was made to discharge its own guns; but neither priming nor match could be found, and appliances for reloading were wanting. At last, after the Chesapeake had received twenty-one round-shot in the hull, three of the crew being killed and eighteen wounded, and Barron himself receiving a slight hurt, the American flag descended, and at the same moment the first and only gun on the American side was touched off by one of the officers by means of a live coal brought from the galley. The crew of the Chesapeake was mustered submissively before two British lieutenants, who, after a protracted search, arrested the three colored men from the Melampus, and one Wilson or Ratford, besides, a deserter from another British vessel, who had hidden in a coal-hole. Having secured these prisoners, Humphreys, with much show of politeness, refused to accept the Chesapeake as his prize, and sailed for Halifax. Here the four deserters were tried by British court-martial and sentenced to be hanged. Wilson, who was an English subject, was executed, but a reprieve was granted to the three colored Americans on condition of their re-entering the British service.
This extreme instance of the exercise of the right of search, claimed by the British authorities, roused an instant storm throughout America. What had been an outrage when applied to merchant-vessels was now converted into a deep insult by this enforced search of a man-of-war.
When the dismantled Chesapeake came back into Norfolk harbor, bearing its dead and dying, no wonder that the smouldering wrath of our sensitive people leaped into flame. Men wore crape upon their arms to mourn for the slain. In all the chief commercial towns were held public meetings, where citizens, without distinction of party, united in execrating the British outrage. Reparation for the past and security for the future was the universal cry of American freemen: - reparation or war. "This country," wrote Jefferson, "has never been in such a state of excitement since the battle of Lexington."
A Cabinet meeting was promptly called at Washington, and measures resolved upon in tone with the public expression,-not, however, to the extent of declaring war, though from the temper of the new British ministry this was expected to follow. American vessels in distant ports were warned of their danger. Recent appropriations for defence were used in strengthening our most exposed ports, New York, New Orleans, and Charleston. Of the gunboats available for service, most were assigned to New York, New Orleans, and the Chesapeake. Military stores were procured, and States were called upon for their quotas of one hundred thousand militia to be organized and ready to march.
A proclamation ordered British cruisers to depart from American waters, and forbade all aid and intercourse with them except in case of extremity. On the return of the Chesapeake to Norfolk, the inhabitants of that town had resolved in public meeting to hold no intercourse with the British squadron in the vicinity until the President's pleasure was known. This decision was received with contemptuous defiance by the British commander Douglas, whose squadron remained within our waters, chasing American merchantmen, until Governor Cabell, of Virginia, ordered militia detachments to the scene. There was no naval force on the coast adequate for compelling obedience to the President's proclamation, a circumstance of which British cruisers took advantage; but so long as they lay quietly outside there was no disposition to molest them.
Orders were at once sent to Minister Monroe, in London, to suspend all negotiations with England, except for a disavowal of and redress for this outrage. The ministry at once disavowed the act, and a conditional reparation was promised. This, however, was never made. Apology and indemnity to the families of the slain could not be given without yielding the claim of the right to search American vessels, and this the ministry continued to insist upon. The fierce struggle between England and Napoleon, indeed, brought fresh measures into vogue, which bore yet more severely on neutral nations. British "Orders in Council," and Napoleon's counter-proclamations, cut off all the commerce of the United States with Europe, and no merchant-vessel could cross the ocean to a European port except under peril of capture and confiscation. By way of reprisal, Congress, at the suggestion of President Jefferson, on December 18, 1807, passed a bill laying an embargo on all foreign-bound vessels, with the expectation that if all American commerce with Europe were thus prevented, the authorities of England and France would be glad to rescind their oppressive decrees. The idea proved erroneous. It quickly appeared that the warring powers could do without America better than America could do without them.
Congress had adjourned in April , leaving the President at full leisure to apply his experiment during a long recess. At first embargo had been well received, but after the spring elections appeared decisive symptoms that sentiment was changing. The stoppage of commerce bore with crushing severity upon New England, whose ships and seamen were thrown suddenly out of employment. Her old merchants tottered to ruin, without a general bankrupt law to relieve them. Breadstuffs and fresh provisions accumulated at the wharves, which, if not exported, would perish and be a dead loss. The high price of such supplies abroad, in comparison with the statute penalties, encouraged shippers to practise every artifice to get them out of the country, though at the risk of capture. The law was evaded by fraud or force; vessels slipped out from Machias, Portland, Nantucket, and Newport harbors; and so high-handed was the resistance to embargo on the Canada border at Lake Champlain, where an illicit traffic went on, that the national government had to equip vessels and send troops thither to maintain its authority.
Flour was the chief commodity in these smuggling ventures. Much was got over the lines into Canada; barrels upon barrels were stored, too, at Eastport and in the southern ports of Georgia, ready to be conveyed, as opportunity might serve, into New Brunswick over the one boundary and Florida over the other. On this account, chiefly, Congress had passed the third Embargo Act just before adjournment, under which the President was empowered to grant special permits for vessels to clear from ports adjacent to foreign territories and make seizure and search of suspected vessels. Collectors were accordingly directed not to grant clearances at all to vessels laden with flour. But, some States finding it needful to import flour for home consumption, the President authorized the respective governors to grant merchandise permits for domestic convenience to those in whom they had confidence. This plan worked badly, for some of the State executives, in fulfilling their functions as "ministers of starvation," yielded too readily to the clamors of the merchants who pestered them, as did especially the easy-tempered Sullivan, whose official permits soon began circulating in cities as far south as Washington, where they were openly bought and sold. By a later circular the President advised the collectors not to detain coastwise vessels with unsuspicious cargoes; and this rule operated much better.
New York city felt embargo like the creep of death. In November that port was full of shipping. On the wharves were strewn bales of cotton, wool, and merchandise; barrels of potash, rice, flour, and salted provisions; hogsheads of sugar, tea, rum, and wine. Carters, sailors, and stevedores were busy. The Tontine Coffee-House was filled with underwriters, brokers, and merchants, all driving a brisk business, while the auctioneer on the front steps knocked off the goods which were heaped about the sidewalk. Carts, drays, and wheelbarrows jammed up the Wall and Pearl Street corner. But the next April all was quiet and stagnation; crowds and merchandise had vanished from Coffee-House Slip, and many commercial houses in the vicinity were closed up.
By midsummer the President and Secretary Gallatin were burdened with cases which required special instructions. They were tormented by personal applications for leave to transport. Against every loop-hole appeared the pressure of a besieging host. It was the most embarrassing law Jefferson had ever to execute; he had not expected such a sudden growth of fraud and open opposition. But he was resolved, nevertheless, that the convenience of the citizen should yield far enough to give the experiment a fair trial..
History must admit that so far as embargo was used as a weapon for coercing Europe it utterly disappointed expectation. The sacrifice required at home, in order to produce an impression abroad, proved of itself fatal in practice to the long endurance of any such experiment. If England bled, or France, under the operation, the United States bled faster. Jefferson miscalculated in supposing that the European struggle had nearly culminated, or that the nerveless Continental powers could organize an armed neutrality to protect their own interests. Instead of a sinking, vacillating, debt-ridden England, he found a stubborn England making capital of what it owed, its prodigious resources slowly uncoiling. He found a new ministry, hard as flint, with Parliament to brace it, bending with redoubled energies to the war, heedless of Liverpool remonstrances, marching the red-coats to break up meetings and suppress riots in Manchester and those other manufacturing towns where embargo and the Continental exclusion were most heavily felt. Next to making American commerce tributary to the British exchequer, the aim of those who framed the Orders in Council had been to drive it from the ocean, so that British merchants might absorb the maritime trade once more to themselves. This latter alternative embargo directly favored. Our non-importation act, which had now gone into effect against Great Britain, made it still less an object for that country to court a repeal of the embargo. By way, too, of partial offset to the loss of our market, a new one was opened to England by the outbreak in Spain. As if to exasperate us to the utmost, the Orders in Council were repealed as to that nation, but not the United States.
Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)