First Advisor

Bernard V. Burke

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History




Impressment, Great Britain -- Foreign relations -- United States -- 1760-1820, United States -- Foreign relations -- Great Britain -- 1783-1865



Physical Description

1 online resource (4, 120 p.)


As an issue affecting the foreign relations of the United States and Britain, impressment has been given varying emphasis by different authors. This thesis is first a chronological outline of the events and correspondence that trace the subject. Beyond this basic delineation I will consider exactly how important impressment was to the two countries. James F. Zimmerman, in Impressment of American Seamen, posits that impressment was of paramount significance while other authors have attempted to down grade it into a status of utter inconsequence. This paper will show that the actual influence of impressment varied from one time, one set of circumstances, to another. Finally, my thesis will attempt to show more of the British side of the question, heretofore primarily ignored. It will be shown that members of the British government had what they felt to be perfectly valid reasons for continuing the practice, even though it eventually led to war. Chapter one serves as an introduction and explanation of the legal and historical backgrounds of impressment. The chapter also covers the first difficulties the two countries had over the issue, when England and France nearly went to war in 1787. These would serve as a model for the problems to come. Chapter two looks into the reasons behind the need for impressment and America's argument against it. Britain needed men to man the navy, America needed these same men for its merchant marine, out of this the basic conflict was born. Chapter three deals with American efforts to contain or eliminate impressment, mostly through acts of Congress to protect United States sailors. The problem America had with issuing proofs of citizenship and Britain's requirement that America issue them began to bring impressment to the fore. James Monroe was sent to London for talks of which impressment was to be a major topic. Chapter four covers the parallel careers of Monroe, United States envoy to London, and Anthony Merry, British minister to America. Both men had troubles dealing with what they felt were obstinate foreign governments and both mens' missions were, in the end, failures. Merry, feeling America to be inflating the reaction against impressment, paid little attention to the complaints and ended up having to deal with harsh anti-British legislation. Monroe's lack of success took longer and forms the basis of chapter five. This chapter details how the Jefferson administration and Monroe were incapable of getting Britain to give an inch on the subject. This culminated in the Treaty of 1806, which was silent on impressment. Chapter six shows how this lack of action set the stage for the encounter between the Chesapeake and the Leopard. This skirmish almost led to war and represents the peak of impressment's importance as an issue in foreign affairs. Chapter seven details other differences between the two countries as they slid toward the War of 1812. Impressment was but one of many causes of the conflict, though one which both sides contributed to keeping alive. Finally, chapter eight covers war-time diplomacy and shows how impressment quickly became the only subject the two countries were fighting over. Later actions on America's part reveal that impressment, as a single complaint, was no longer considered a war-worthy topic, or even much of a cause for complaint.


If you are the rightful copyright holder of this dissertation or thesis and wish to have it removed from the Open Access Collection, please submit a request to and include clear identification of the work, preferably with URL

Persistent Identifier

Included in

History Commons