Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Executioners of Their Friends: Impressment and the Revolution

Detail from The Press Gang, John Collet, c.1760's,
from The Foundling Museum
Representatives of the thirteen rebellious British colonies in North America famously listed their grievances with the Crown in the Declaration of Independence. From the dissolving of assemblies to the use of German mercenaries, the Founders laid out every major offense to the liberty of Americans. The Declaration of Independence is known to every American school child. The assertion that 'all men are created equal' is arguably the cornerstone of American political philosophy.

What is little explored and little known is the argument that the King:
has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.[1]
Their argument was the culmination of decades of anger over the kidnapping of American sailors, and colonial resistance (both of the legal and violent varieties) to a controversial system.

I argue that the Revolution did not end the troubles of impressment, but exacerbated them. This was largely because the Americans themselves relied on the British tradition of impressment to man their ships. Such a clearly hypocritical action (and one that many Americans were clearly uncomfortable with) undermined and eroded their argument until it was no longer a viable point to stand on.

I'm not the first to make this argument. Tim McGrath mentioned American impressment in his 2014 book Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea. Mark Strecker mentions it in the introduction to his 2014 book Shanghaiing Sailors: A Maritime History of Forced Labor, 1849–1915 and makes the same argument that I do concerning the hypocrisy created by this act. William M. Fowler Jr. also addressed it as far back as 1974 in his paper 'The Non-Volunteer Navy' published in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, and again in his 1976 book Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy During the Revolution.

Americans detested naval impressment. In the 1765 case of the the Rhode Island guineaman Ospray, whose sailors were pressed by the Royal Navy frigate Maidstone, the people of Newport were so angered that they rioted. As Timothy Abbott relates in his blog 'Another Pair Not Fellows,' when the Maidstone's tender Saint John sent a boat ashore to retrieve a deserter who may have been a pressed man:
Pelting the sailors with stones, the large crowd injured a number of the men in Saint John's boat and took a midshipman hostage. Then some of the mob took up muskets and pursued the retreating longboat back toward the Saint John in a sloop. Before the end of the affair, the colonial gunners at the Fort George on Goat Island even fired cannon (one shot allegedly piercing her Mainsail) at Saint John.
Five years before the Boston Massacre, a full decade before Lexington and Concord, Americans fired on a Royal Navy vessel over naval impressment.

One reason the British did not more aggressively pursue suppression of American resistance to impressment was the tricky legal situation it placed British commanders in.

An example of the complicate legal scene can be found in the affair of the Pitt Packet. Sailing into Boston in 1769, she was stopped by the frigate Rose. The sailors, believing themselves to be protected from impressment by law, barricaded themselves in the Pitt Packet's forepeak and fought back against a press gang led by Lieutenant Henry Panton. John Adams later wrote that the sailor Michael Corbet drew a line with salt across the deck, and warned Lieutenant Panton
If you step over that line, I shall consider it as a proof that you are determined to impress me, and by the eternal God of Heaven, you are a dead man.” “Aye, my lad,” said the lieutenant, “I have seen many a brave fellow before now.” Taking his snuff-box out of his pocket, and taking a pinch of snuff, he very deliberately stepped over the line, and attempted to seize Corbet. The latter, drawing back his arm, and driving his harpoon with all his force, cut off the carotid artery and jugular vein, and laid the lieutenant dead at his feet.[2]
John Adams, future founding father, made the interesting argument that naval impressment was justifiable, but so too was violent resistance to impressment:
I think that Impresses may be allowed to be legal, and yet Corbit might have a Right to resist. To be more particular, when I say Impresses may be legal, I mean that the Lieutenant or other officer who Impresses, may not be liable to any Action of false Imprisonment at the suit of the Party, or to any Indictment at the suit of the Crown, for an Assault, or Riot. The Custom may be admitted to extend so far, and yet it will not follow, that the Seaman has not a Right to resist, and keep himself out of the officers Power, if he can.[3]
Adams hadn't even finished his closing argument before the court abruptly adjourned, and reconvened hours later with the hasty decision to release the accused as having committed a justifiable homicide.

In America, the face of resistance was common sailors and lawyers. In Britain, the face of resistance was female. This was made apparent by the Falkland Island crisis of 1770. As Denver Brunsman related in his The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World, to prepare for a possible war with Spain, King George III's 'navy impressed seamen on a massive scale.'[4]
Detail from The Press Gang, or English Liberty Display'd,
artist unknown, 1770, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
Detail from The Press Gang, artist unknown, 1770,
Yale University Lewis Walpole Library
Satiric cartoons printed in Britain illustrated the injustice of impressment as men were hustled off by sailors, while their wives wept at the feet of uncaring naval officers.

Tugging at the heart strings was one way to resist, but women were also willing to directly confront press gangs and challenge their courage and manhood. Many newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic reported the appearance of 'the famous Hannah Snell' in confronting press gangs.

April 11, 1771, The Maryland Gazette, page 2
Hannah was not bluffing when she dared them to 'take Brown Bess on your Shoulder, and march through Germany, as I have done; Ye Dogs, I have more Wounds about me than ye have Fingers.' As a younger woman, she disguised herself as a man, served in the marines, and was wounded in battle.

Resistance to impressment was present throughout the British Atlantic World, and so when the Continental Congress included a condemnation of impressment after the outbreak of hostilities, they were likely to find a receptive audience among the British.

Sadly, this argument was almost immediately undermined. The Continental Navy, America's new and tiny maritime force, was chronically undermanned and undersupplied. To solve the former problem, sometimes press gangs were employed.

The impressment of sailors by American ships at first targeted British sailors and exempted Americans. A ship's carpenter recalled that when he and his mates were taken prisoner by the Americans in 1776, they were well treated 'and had Passes given us to protect us from being impressed by the American Sea Officers.'[5] Another British prisoner in 1776 recalled the use of impressment against British sailors: 'About the 20th of October, the Boston, a 30 gun frigate, came round from Newbury to Boston, to fit out under the command of Capt. M'Neil; she was navigated by thirty English sailors, whom they impressed for that service only.'[6]

Still, the Americans tried to practice what they preached about naval impressment. Writing to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Continental Army general Horatio Gates mentioned a seaman named William Beard among prisoners (soldiers and sailors) taken by his command. Beard, wrote Gates, 'appears to be an Impress'd Man, on board of a Man of War, at Hampton in Virginia; he may also have his Liberty at Worcester.'[7] The Americans were fighting a war of liberation, and if they could free British subjects from the oppression perpetrated by their own government, it would underline the moral justice of their cause.

Their moral fortitude was not to last. As the Americans became desperate, principles gave way and captains began pressing American sailors. The most notorious incident involved Captain James Nicholson, commanding the frigate Virginia in Baltimore, Maryland. Nicholson was ordered by the Marine Committee in 1777 to 'be particularly attentive to collect as many Seamen as possible, not only what may be necessary for the Virginia, but as many as you can bring to assist in manning the rest of our Navy.'[8] Given that Baltimore was a vibrant privateer port, there were few sailors willing to take on the low pay of a Continental Navy vessel. Nicholson ran a press in Baltimore and infuriated the Marylanders.

Governor Thomas Johnson scolded Nicholson in a letter demanding he cease impressment and discharge all men forced into his service. Johnson adopted the rebels rhetoric in reminding Nicholson of the responsibility that came with authority:
It is the Office of Government to protect every Subject in his Liberty and his Property, nor shall we, who are honored by our Country with the highest Department, be idle Spectators of the Oppression of any Man in it.[9]
When Nicholson persisted, Johnson wrote to the Continental Congress and implied that the captain was becoming something of a tyrant with unchecked powers:
I am sorry the Congress did not at once say what Capt Nicholson should do by way of Concession and appoint some Body to discharge the Men there's an indelicacy in saying what any shall do by a Man to himself.[10]
Nicholson was not the only Continental Navy officer to practice impressment. The legendary John Paul Jones was accused of pressing privateersmen, provoking a protest that was sent directly to Congress:
The Owners of the Privateer Schooner Eagle request that you will present to Congress, and support with your good Influence, the inclosed Memorial and Protest, relative to the Conduct of Capt. Jones, Commander of the Ship Alfred, in impressing a Number of Hands from the Said Schooner, maltreating the Officers, and breaking up her Cruize.[11]
Impressment was also practiced by Captain Webb of the Pennsylvania State Navy, Captain Isaiah Robinson of the Continental brig Andrew Doria, and Captain John Burroughs Hopkins of the Continental ship Warren.[12]

With the entry of France into the war, Britain's already strained resources were pressed even further. Impressment was used, as it had been throughout the century, to man the Royal Navy, and certainly on a much broader scale than the Americans were. In a telling political cartoon published in 1779, James Gillray used the language of the American rebels to protest impressment.
The Liberty of the Subject, by James Gillray, 1779, National Portrait Gallery (UK)
Gillray shows women violently resisting the gang, pulling their hair and swinging sticks. The term 'Liberty' is front and center. Gillray was using the Americans' vocabulary of Revolution to call out unjust practices in the mother country, but the Americans still failed to live up to their rhetoric. In 1781 Jacob Nagle, an American citizen, was targeted for impressment by a Continental Navy warship.
The Confederacy frigate sent her boat on board and took 4 men out, and expecting more to be stowed away below, but could not find us. They left three midshipmen on board with a brace of pistols and cutlashes each.[13]
The Declaration of Independence bore a strong argument against naval impressment that would have resounded with British sympathizers. In failing to follow the high ideals of the new nation, the Continental Navy drained that argument of its effectiveness. Despite the role of press gangs in provoking colonials toward rebellion, it failed to find a place among the American pantheon of British injustice, like quartering troops, dissolving legislatures, taxation without representation, and hiring German armies to fight in America.

A generation later, naval impressment reemerged as a wedge in American-British relations, and led directly to the War of 1812.

[1] 'Engrossed Declaration of Independence,' The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 360: Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, 1765 - 1821, accessed January 25, 2018, <>.
[2] John Adams, 'The Indamissable Principles of the King of England's Proclamation of October 26, 1807,' The Works of John Adams, Volume 9, Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1854, page 312.
[3] 'Adams' Argument and Report, Special Court of Admiralty, Boston, June 1769' in Legal Papers of John Adams Volume 2, Massachussetts Historical Society, accessed January 25, 2018, <>.
[4] Brunsman, Denver, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013, page 244.
[5] Naval Documents of the American Revolution, William Bell Clark, ed., volume 4, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1969, page 1115.
[6] Naval Documents, volume 7, page 299.
[7] Naval Documents, Volume 3, page 601-602.
[8] Naval Documents, volume 8, page 297.
[9] Maryland State Archives, Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777, Maryland Archives Online, Volume 16, page 277, accessed January 26, 2018, <>.
[10] Naval Documents, volume 8, page 966.
[11] Naval Documents, volume 7, page 357.
[12] Naval Documents, volume 8, pages 459, 381, and 1044.

[13] Nagle, Jacob, The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841, edited by John C. Dann, New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988, page 25.


  1. That impressment may have occurred in a few instances -- here the author cites two and the accounts themselves requiring scrutiny to get at what specifically was being described and by who and how credible -- is not (yet) proof of the practice in America having been anything more than an anomaly -- if that is, it can be accurately said it even was a problem at all. If the allegation is true, and this is the first time in decades of study the Revolutionary War that I ever even heard of such a charge, then I would readily agree it is quite a bombshell. But that's just the thing -- is it true (or more fake news, and of our own day and age, mayhap)?

    1. I do not argue that impressment was a widespread practice by American naval forces, but it undeniably did happen throughout the conflict as you can see in the sources above. If it were indeed "fake news," it would require the collaboration of the United States Navy, National Archives, Maryland State Archives, University of Virginia, and independent publishers and scholars for over forty years. Given that it paints American naval forces in a negative light, it's even more unlikely to have been made up by United States naval historians. That's a wide ranging conspiracy for such a relatively esoteric subject.