The Bloodless War in the Early 1800s

During Jefferson’s second term in office, Britain and France were at war again, and the United States was trying to stay out of it — again. One reason for staying out of it was that it was hard to figure out which side to like less.

Both countries decided to blockade the other, and that meant French naval ships stopped American ships bound for Britain and seized their cargoes, and the British navy did the same to U.S. ships bound for France or its allies.

But the British also had the maddening habit of impressments — pressing Americans into British naval service. Britain relied on its navy for its very survival. But it treated its sailors so poorly that they deserted by the hundreds and sometimes took refuge in the American merchant fleet, where treatment and pay were better.

So British warships often stopped American ships and inspected their crews for deserters. And just as often, they helped themselves to American citizens when they couldn’t find deserters.

In one particularly galling case in June 1807, the British frigate Leopard fired on the U.S. frigate Chesapeake, forced the Chesapeake to lower its flag, took four “deserters” — including a Native American and an African American — and hanged one of them. The incident infuriated much of the country, and the louder members of Congress called for war.

But Jefferson wanted to avoid that. Instead, he decided to put pressure on Britain economically. In late 1807, he prodded Congress into passing the Embargo Act, which essentially ended all American commerce with foreign countries. The idea was to hurt Britain — and France too — in the wallet and force them to ease off American shipping.

Bad idea. While smuggling made up some of the loss, American commerce plunged. U.S. harbors were awash in empty ships, and farmers watched crops once bound for overseas markets rot. Jefferson received hundreds of letters from Americans denouncing the dambargo, including one purportedly sent on behalf of 4,000 unemployed seamen. Meanwhile, France and Britain continued to slug it out.

Finally, in early 1809, just before leaving office, Jefferson relented, and Congress passed a milder version of an embargo. But the damage had been done, and the bloodless war was on its way to being replaced with a real one.

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