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The cry "press gang” was probably the quickest way to empty any English seaport tavern or brothel in the 18th or early 19th century. Those men unfortunate enough to be caught by the gang found themselves sailors in the Royal Navy. This rather heavy-handed form of selective service was essential to keeping the British Fleet properly manned, especially in wartime when the rate of desertion was likely to take a heavier toll than the enemy. The practice was not confined to the shore, and vessels on the high seas or in coastal waters were frequently stopped by naval commanders who would forcibly remove sailors from the crew to fill their own complement.
During the 18th century, the colonial wars in America, as well as the surveillance of the coasts to detect smugglers, forced the Royal Navy to assign additional vessels to the North American station. Along with these heightened naval activities came impressment. The practice was obnoxious enough in itself, but in the American colonies it took on some added dimensions. The sometimes arrogant and disdainful attitude of the naval officers towards the local governments rankled the colonists who held their local institutions in high regard. Furthermore, in addition to the hardships caused to the individual pressed, these activities frequently disrupted the entire life of the community. In New York during the winter of 1757, the threat of impressment by English naval vessels discouraged local carriers from bringing their cargoes into the harbor. As a result, the price of fuel went up sharply during those cold months and many New Yorkers spent chilly evenings cursing the Royal Navy. In Boston, the activities of the press gang so incensed the local citizens that an angry mob stormed the State House, smashed windows, forced their way into the lower floor, and sent the Governor fleeing out to Castle William in the harbor for safety.
Despite the numerous protests and the ill feeling being generated, impressment continued to be practiced ln the American Colonies. The critical need for sailors, •specially during wartime, overrode any other consid
erations, humanitarian or political. The Royal Navy even went about pressing Americans after the Revolution when they had ceased to be subjects of the King. It was only with the War of 1812, when America fought to end this affront to our national dignity, that the practice was halted in American waters.
Although Americans complained loudly about impressment, they were not entirely innocent of the practice themselves. In fact, during the American Revolution, the Continental Navy impressed men into its service. On one occasion this practice created a serious crisis involving the Continental Congress, the State of Maryland, and the senior captain in the Navy, James Nicholson.
In 1775, Congress authorized the construction of 13 frigates, and the following year they appointed Nicholson to command the Virginia, built and launched at Baltimore. Under Nicholson’s supervision, the Virginia made ready for sea and in April 1777 she was ordered to the French West Indian island of Martinique where she was to deliver dispatches and take on a cargo of much-needed arms and ammunition for the Continental Army. Unfortunately, although the Virginia was fully rigged and fitted out, her crew was short-handed and Nicholson found that he could not safely put to sea without additional sailors. His predicament was the result of desertion, since many of his men had left to sign on privateers where the danger was less and the profits greater.
Having received his sailing orders, but finding himself with an inadequate crew, Nicholson proceeded to impress about 30 citizens of Baltimore. The captain’s activities drew the immediate attention of the Governor of Maryland, Thomas Johnson, and he demanded that Nicholson discharge the impressed men "instantly.” According to Johnson, Nicholson had not only committed a "wrong to the Individuals,” but, perhaps even worse, the presence of his press gang was also "injurious to the Town, in deterring people from going to Market there, for fear of being treated in the same manner.”
76 U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1974
Johnson’s complaint and demand that the men be released met with a cool reception from Captain Nicholson. Nicholson, a native Marylander from the Eastern Shore, saw Johnson’s actions as simply another instance where the "Whig Inhabitants of this town” were attempting to publicly embarrass him. While there was undoubtedly a grain of truth in Nicholson’s assessment, the captain failed to realize that what was at issue here involved more than factional bickering in Maryland.
Nicholson wasted no time in replying to Governor Johnson and the next day, 25 April, he sent him an arrogant and insulting letter. He told the Governor that he had every reason to believe that his superiors in Congress would approve his actions since, according to him, impressment "is now practiced every day in Philadelphia, and has been [for some time] in some of the Northern States.” Having cited his authority and precedent, Nicholson went on to say that no great hardship had been done to the men pressed, since he had taken care to take "no man aboard ship that . . . [was] not a proper Person to serve his country and unmarried.” The captain concluded his letter by boasting, "I have done my duty to my Country and myself and ... I care not for the Threats of any Council of Maryland.”
As an officer commissioned by the Continental Congress, Nicholson considered himself above the authority of the State of Maryland. By persisting in this belief Nicholson showed himself to be highly insensitive to the feelings of the State officials as well as ignorant about the true nature of the Congress. Although it sat as a national body and did in fact commission officers, its powers were severely restricted by the states. The states were sovereign, not Congress. Maryland and her sister states were always reluctant to give over any fraction of their authority and they closely guarded their prerogatives, allowing Congress to exercise only very limited powers. Their attitude is understandable considering the fact that they were waging a war to throw off the tyranny of a powerful central government which had been prone to do exactly what Nicholson was now doing in the name of the Continental Congress.
On 27 April, Johnson dispatched Nicholson’s letter to the President of the Congress, John Hancock. The Governor asked Hancock and the Congress to give immediate orders for the release of the impressed men and requested that Nicholson be dismissed from the service for his "gross Conduct.” By doing this, Johnson assured Hancock, they would "preserve the confidence of this State in the Justice of Congress . . . .”
Nicholson’s letter stirred up almost universal indignation in Congress. The issue was no longer simply
impressment. The issue now was whether or not Congress would countenance one of its officers giving an affront to state authorities. On this point there could be no question and on 29 April Congress ordered Nicholson to release the impressed men and not to leave port. These orders were to be transmitted to the captain by the Marine Committee of the Congress. The Congress held back from dismissing Ni.cholson in the hopes that the release of the men and an apology would be sufficient to soothe the Governor and Council.
The reluctance of Congress to move more severely against Nicholson was partly motivated by the desire to retain an experienced officer, but there were political reasons as well. Barely two months before, in March 1777, the Commander in Chief of the American Navy, Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island, had been suspended from his command. Those acrimonious proceedings were still fresh in the minds of naval supporters in the Congress and they had every intention of avoiding any further public display that could only serve to heap more abuse on the Navy’s already declining reputation. In addition to these difficulties, the Congress and the Marine Committee had to keep in mind the potential effects Nicholson’s dismissal might have on the morale of other officers in the service. Most of the other commanders, having faced similar problems were probably sympathetic to Nicholson and any action taken against him could not help but have repercussions all through the ranks.
Robert Morris, the most influential member of the Marine Committee, wrote to Governor Johnson in an effort to assuage him and to explain Nicholson’s actions and to try to put them into perspective. Morris noted that impressment was being practiced in Philadelphia without interference by state authorities. The Pennsylvania government refrained from intervening not because they approved of impressment but because, according to Morris, it was essential to the manning of the Navy. Morris went on to suggest to Johnson that:
. . perhaps no great disadvantage might have resulted to the State of Maryland had you only checked this business so far as it had come before you by Complaint from Individuals whose particular Situations or Circumstances might have called for exemption and protection.”
In other words, where Johnson took issue with the principle, Morris only found fault with the practice. Along with Morris’ letter, the Marine Committee also sent one of its members, Francis Lewis of New York, to speak personally with the Governor and Council.
The position of the Congress had been made quite clear in the resolve of 29 April—all of the men impressed were to be released. The Maryland authorities took the Congress literally and they expected that every
The Non-Volunteer Navy
Han would be released, but when the Marine Committee translated the resolve into orders for Nicholson, •hey altered the original intent in such a way as to Hake the results completely unacceptable to both Johnson and the Congress. Since the two key men on the Committee, Morris and Lewis, were fully aware of Johnson’s and Congress’ position on this issue, these iterations cannot be described as an error or an oversight. They were an attempt by the Marine Committee (o circumvent Congress out of a desire to serve what they considered to be the best interests of the Navy. The Marine Committee’s orders instructed Nicholson (o release only those men who had not signed the Articles and had not received the Continental Bounty. This was a subterfuge that Johnson quickly saw through, since most of the men pressed would have signed the Articles in order to get the Bounty. When J man was taken by a press gang he was given the opportunity to "volunteer.” If he "volunteered” and signed the Articles, then he would be paid the Bounty, 'f not, then he would continue to serve but without 'he Bounty. Once he had signed he would be listed °n the ship’s rolls as a volunteer no matter how reluc- Santly he had come about that state. Johnson was furious at this attempted deception.
By now, Nicholson himself was beginning to sense just what a hornet’s nest he was sitting on. Not wish- 'Ug to share the fate of Esek Hopkins, Nicholson wrote Ju apology to Johnson:
"I am sorry to find the letter I wrote you is viewed by your Excellency, by Congress, and many of my Friends to carry much more contempt and Disregard than I ever intended tho I willingly confess that when I came cooly to revise the copy of the letter I disapproved of it myself and would do anything to recall several sentences of it, and was very sorry I sent it.”
Nicholson closed by suggesting to Johnson that he °Ught not to urge his dismissal from the service since sUch an act would precipitate a mass resignation by 0ther naval officers. Considering Nicholson’s position, his apology was far from contrite. He had completely 'Snored the main issue, impressment, and the sugges- '*on that his dismissal would cripple the Navy was at best vain and at worst a crude attempt at intimidation.
Johnson’s reply was brief and cold. He reiterated his demand that all the men who "have through force or fear been induced to sign the Articles, or receive the bounty ... be discharged.” As for Nicholson’s reference to the possibility of his brother officers resigning •n protest, Johnson told him bluntly that such an event ^ould have "no Influence on us.”
After waiting a week to no avail for Nicholson to Please the men, Johnson again wrote to Congress
noting that Nicholson had as yet done nothing. By this time Congress, too, was piqued especially at the Marine Committee for altering the resolve to suit their own ends. Congress decided on a new set of resolves and appointed the two Maryland delegates, Charles Carroll and William Paca, to draw them up. The next day Carroll and Paca brought in three resolves for consideration. By the first, Nicholson was dismissed from the command of the Virginia for not making full satisfaction to the Governor and Council; by the second, he was restored to his command on his disapprobation of his letter to Johnson; and by the third, he was ordered to release every impressed man who was to be considered as such by a representative of the
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Governor who would come aboard to investigate. All of these probably could have passed with little difficulty; however, the need to take official action was obviated when Nicholson, sensing the futility of further resistance, finally agreed to abide by the wishes of the Governor. He allowed a local magistrate to board his vessel and after careful examination he determined that 13 men had been improperly taken and should be released at once. Nicholson, if not happily, at least quickly complied. Satisfied with the magistrate’s action Johnson let the matter rest. He had made his point and now he was anxious to see the Virginia sail.
James Nicholson’s encounter with Governor Johnson was the first time that the Congress had to deal with the problem of impressment by the American Navy but it was by no means the last, for while Nicholson and the Marine Committee had been forced to back down in this particular instance they had not surrendered their right to impress men. In the fall of 1779, the issue came to a head again when the Marine Committee and the Congress found themselves once more forced to cope with an overbearing captain whose activities had angered state authorities. The complainant was Joseph Reed, President of the Council of Pennsylvania. This time Congress laid down a general policy for its officers to follow. The Congressional resolve did not condemn impressment, but rather stipulated that Continental commanders could not impress without the consent of the legislature or executive of the state where the impressment was being carried out.
This resolve failed to restrain Nicholson, and less than one year later, he was again illegally pressing men. By now, Esek Hopkins had been dismissed from the Service and Nicholson was the senior officer in the Navy. He had lost the Virginia; she had run aground off Cape Henry and had been surrendered without firing a shot. He now commanded the frigate Trumbull. Shortly after taking command he again found himself short-handed. Like the men in the Virginia, the crew of the Trumbull had been lured away by the promise of privateering and many of them had deserted. This time, to fill his complement instead of going ashore, Nicholson stopped two vessels, the Holker and the Fair American, and impressed men from their crews. Their owners lodged a complaint with Congress and Nicholson was ordered to release the men. This time he quickly complied.
Three months later, the irrepressible Nicholson was at it again. He had ordered one of his subordinates, John Young, captain of the Continental ship Saratoga, "to take up and secure any of the crew . . . who were not regularly discharged.” Young, in obedience to his
superior’s commands began his search for deserters. Unfortunately, the captain of the Saratoga conducted his search and seized some men without the approval of the local authorities. Before long, Young found himself face to face with the sheriff of Philadelphia who served him with a writ of habeas corpus and threatened to put him under arrest. For protection, Young appealed to the Continental Board of Admiralty (successor to the Marine Committee), who in turn referred his case to Congress. Congress, too deeply involved in matters of more consequence and unwilling to offend the Pennsylvania authorities, put the Board’s request far down on its list of priorities and did not even consider it until eight months later when the report was endorsed "not to be acted upon.” That was the last time the Continental Congress had to be concerned with impressment by the American Navy for, by the end of 1781, the Navy itself had almost ceased to exist. In the summer of that year, the Board of Admiralty was abolished and naval administration was put in the hands of one man, Robert Morris, who oversaw the entire American fleet, now consisting of only two frigates, the Alliance and the Deane.
Impressing seamen was an unsavory way to man ships but, given the poor conditions of naval life and the greater attractiveness of privateering, there probably was no other method if the vessels were to get to sea. In one instance, as an alternative to impressment, Nicholson resorted to manning his frigate with British prisoners of war. That proved to be a disaster for, when an enemy vessel approached, the crew refused to fight. As it was, American impressment never reached a fraction of the number of men impressed by the Royal Navy during the Revolution. Nevertheless, even in small doses, it proved to be bitter medicine to swallow and it was another irksome point of friction between the states and the Congress. The states did not deny the right of impressment, in fact, two of them resorted to it themselves to man their own navies. The issue was, who had the right of impressment, the Congress or the states? If men must be made to serve, then who shall compel them, the local or the central government? The states were watchful of their authority and, since impressment involved such a basic intrusion into the life of the individual, they were not about to see that power exercised by a government removed from their control. Even after the adoption of the Federal Constitution, this problem of drafting men into the armed services remained troublesome. It was solved only partially during the Civil War and not fully until our own century.