In the years leading up to the War of 1812, Great Britain refused to observe American neutrality on the high seas. The British barred American merchantmen from trading with the French despite the neutral status of the United States, and Royal Navy warships stopped U.S. vessels and impressed perhaps as many as 15,000 American seamen. For these and other reasons, the Jefferson and Madison administrations tried to maintain American neutrality through economic pressure with the Embargo, Enforcement, and Non-Intercourse laws. Revenue cutters had to enforce these unpopular measures that put thousands of Americans out of work. The United States repealed nearly all of them before the war, but the trade restrictions contributed to animosities between Great Britain and the United States leading up to the conflict.
After a concerted effort to remain neutral through embargoes and diplomacy, President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain on 18 June 1812. At that time, the United States faced the Royal Navy’s fleet of 600 warships with just 17 commissioned warships, a fleet of small gunboats, 14 revenue cutters, and several smaller revenue boats.