Unshackling America challenges the persistent fallacy that Americans fought two separate wars of independence. Willard Sterne Randall documents an unremitting fifty-year-long struggle for economic independence from Britain overlapping two armed conflicts linked by an unacknowledged global struggle. Throughout this perilous period, the struggle was all about free trade.
Neither Jefferson nor any other Founding Father could divine that the Revolutionary Period of 1763 to 1783 had concluded only one part, the first phase of their ordeal. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 at the end of the Revolutionary War halted overt combat but had achieved only partial political autonomy from Britain. By not guaranteeing American economic independence and agency, Britain continued to deny American sovereignty.
Randall details the fifty years and persistent attempts by the British to control American trade waters, but he also shows how, despite the outrageous restrictions, the United States asserted the doctrine of neutral rights and developed the world’s second largest merchant fleet as it absorbed the French Caribbean trade. American ships carrying trade increased five-fold between 1790 and 1800, its tonnage nearly doubling again between 1800 and 1812, ultimately making the United States the world’s largest independent maritime power.
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"A Glow of Patriotic Fire"
On April 25, 1806, three British men-of-war, Leander, Cambrian and Driver, were patrolling the entrance to New York harbor. All day, the sixty-gun frigate Leander had stopped every American ship, first lobbing a cannonball across its bow, the signal to heave to, be boarded and be searched for deserters from the Royal Navy and contraband from Britain's enemy, France. Toward evening, the Delaware coastal schooner Richard, hauling produce to market, was only a quarter mile offshore. Two eighteen-pound cannonballs suddenly erupted from Leander, one cutting across Richard's bow, the other arcing overhead. Immediately Richard hove to, waiting for the British boarding party. But then a third projectile, skipping along the surface, crashed through the schooner's taff rail, driving a large splinter through the neck of the helmsman John Pierce, decapitating him.
Pierce's brother somehow managed to steer the schooner to the city docks in lower Manhattan. As he carried his brother's headless body through the streets, an angry crowd gathered. They had watched helplessly as British boarding parties, in an illegal peacetime blockade, seized American vessels before sailing them off to Halifax to be condemned by a British Admiralty court and auctioned off, the proceeds divided among Leander's captain and crew. A crowd of volunteers commandeered two British pilot vessels anchored at the wharf, overtook three British supply boats and forced them back to port, unloading their cargoes into carts for distribution among the city's poorhouses.
In front of the Tontine Coffee House, New York's incipient stock exchange, Pierce's corpse remained on display during days of rioting. Britain's consul-general hid in his house as a mob hurled stones through his windows. At Hardy's waterfront tavern, merchants blamed President Thomas Jefferson for failing to resist years of British interference with America's commerce. Like many Americans, they also blamed Jefferson for refusing to maintain a proper navy to protect America's burgeoning maritime trade. Irate citizens also organized a city militia. The city's Common Council ordered Pierce's burial at public expense and, as American ships in the harbor flew their flags at half mast, as a body led thousands to the interment to honor the seaman whose death had brought to a head years of fruitless protests against Britain's attempts to stifle American trade.
When an express rider reached Washington City with Mayor DeWitt Clinton's dispatches, Jefferson ordered the Leander and her sister ships to "immediately & without any delay depart from the harbours & waters of the U.S." Even though the United States had won the Revolutionary War a generation earlier, Jefferson could do nothing now beyond issuing an empty decree that all British ships must leave American waters. After a hastily summoned New York grand jury indicted Leander's captain, Henry Whitby for murder, Jefferson decreed that if Whitby were ever found again in American territory, he was to be arrested and returned to New York to face the charge. If British ships ignored Jefferson's executive order and continued to come into American waters, Americans were forbidden to pilot them into ports, sell them provisions or provide them with fresh water or "supplies of any kind." Jefferson called the stationing of British warships off Sandy Hook "an atrocious violation of our territorial rights."
Jefferson must have known it was impossible to enforce his executive order. He had drastically downsized the navy, ordering its half dozen frigates into dry dock and replacing them with what naval officers called a "mosquito navy" of shallow-draft, poorly armed gunboats useful only close to shore.
Like fellow veterans of the Tripoli Wars, Navy commodore William Bainbridge fumed at this latest affront. "How long must we bear these violations of our National honor, property, and loss of our fellow Citizens," he wrote to Captain Edward Preble. "O Lord! Grant us a more honorable Peace or a sanguinary war!"
All along the Atlantic seaboard, as news spread of the latest British provocation, newspaper editors trumpeted calls for war. DeWitt Clinton later wrote, "I well remember the sensation excited by the murder of Pierce. It was a glow of patriotic fire that pervaded the whole community ... from Georgia to Maine it was felt like an electrical shock."
The Leander incident and the firestorm of anti-British resentment it ignited followed a quarter century of flare-ups in the struggle for the United States' economic independence from Britain and its survival as a sovereign nation. What neither Jefferson nor any other of America's founding generation could divine was that, even after the British imperial crisis that began with protests over illegal searches and seizures in Boston in 1761 and led to American military victory in 1783, what is commonly called the American Revolution constituted only the first phase of a far more protracted ordeal to achieve true independence. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 only halted the overt conflict of the Revolutionary War and granted political autonomy, but it did not guarantee American economic independence and agency. For fully three more contentious decades that led to another war — the War of 1812 — Britain continued to deny the United States' sovereignty.
The second phase of the half-century-long struggle combined a domestic ideological crisis over American identity with unrelenting and ever-intensifying attempts by the British to stifle American trade and to starve her former colonies. From 1783 until combat resumed in 1812, the United States' weak central government and a military enfeebled by Jeffersonian political purges rendered the young nation's chance of survival dubious.
Ignoring their military failure in the Revolutionary War and the consequent treaty of peace, the British Parliament ratcheted up efforts to eliminate competition, first by re-invoking the colonial-era Navigation Act of 1756, requiring that all goods transported between British possessions or to and from England must be carried on British ships — "English goods in English bottoms." Banning long-existing trade between New England and its Canadian neighbor, the Navigation Act also barred long-flourishing commercial ties with British Caribbean colonies. Moreover, Britain insisted that its treaty allies, Spain and Portugal, embargo American trade and forbid trade with any of their three colonies. Britain also prohibited vital exports from England to the United States, including sheep, wool and woolens. All the while, in violation of the peace treaty, Britain refused to remove its troops from fortified trading posts around the Great Lakes and along the Canadian-American frontier. Throughout this perilous half century, the underlying cause of contention was America's right to free trade.
As the Napoleonic Wars spread over Europe in the 1790s, Britain, ignoring America's status as a sovereign nation, denied the United States' neutral maritime rights. Flouting the rights of American merchant-ship owners and sailors, as in the case of the Leander, the Royal Navy stopped, searched and seized ships on every ocean.
During the more than two decades of almost constant warfare in Europe that followed the French Revolution, Britain and France formed and realigned alliances. Attempting to blockade each other into submission, the combatants enmeshed the United States in rules aimed at preventing shipments to each other's enemy. Admiral Nelson's decisive victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805 had forced Napoleon to abandon his dream of invading the British Isles, but the French emperor retaliated, setting out to destroy the British economy by cutting off its vital import-export trade with the Continent. In turn, Britain deployed its nine-hundred-ship navy, cordoning off Europe with a blockade that severed France from its overseas empire and high-handedly banning neutral nations from trading with French-controlled ports.
The War of 1812 came on by decrees. After Napoleon achieved a brilliant victory at Jena in 1806, he inaugurated his Continental System with the Berlin Decree, a blockade in reverse that closed all European ports to Britain and subjected all goods of British origin to confiscation. After his victory at Friedland in 1807, he extended the system to include Russia and the Baltic states. In January 1807 Britain responded to Napoleon by issuing Orders in Council that expanded its own blockade. The first of fourteen such orders in 1807 allowed the Royal Navy to control the European coastal trade by banning direct neutral trading with the ports of Britain's enemies. A subsequent order required neutral ships to call at British ports, unload for inspection, pay customs duties of 25 percent and purchase an expensive license before going on to enemy ports. Napoleon retaliated with his Milan Decree, extending to neutrals the embargo on goods destined for the ports of Britain and her allies, Spain and Portugal. He also ordered confiscation of any ship obeying Britain's Orders in Council.
All through the tempestuous 1790s and into the early nineteenth century, the United States had been dragged ever deeper into the worldwide conflict, not only exacerbating tensions between the United States and Britain but, after Robespierre beheaded Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, dividing Americans' sympathies as well. Many southerners sympathized with the French while New Englanders, longtime enemies of the French in Canada, tended to side with their traditional North Atlantic trading partners.
Beyond cataclysmic battles on land and sea, a new and devastating form of economic warfare emerged. Invoking an evolving international doctrine of neutral maritime rights, America's seagoing merchants defied the new British restrictions, absorbing the bulk of the French Caribbean carrying trade as they developed the world's second largest merchant fleet. The American carrying trade increased fivefold between 1792 and 1807 as the United States became the world's largest neutral maritime power, helped along by the many seamen who deserted the Royal Navy, exchanging brutal, lifelong discipline for more lenient, limited tours of service on U.S. ships.
After the Royal Navy had resorted to blockading — an act of war according to international law — it stopped and searched some 400 American vessels, scouring them for British deserters, to maintain full complements aboard its blockading ships. By 1807, of the 55,000 American sailors involved in overseas trade, fully 40 percent had been born in England and Ireland. Britain refused to acknowledge the revolutionary American doctrine of naturalization. In all, the British impressed 9,991 American sailors between 1796 and 1812, by any measure the majority of them native-born Americans. The British assigned these men to convoy duty in the Indian Ocean, in effect imprisoning them, as they endured indefinite sentences under harsh naval discipline far from any chance of seeing their homes and families again.
In what Winston Churchill aptly called an "unofficial trade war," the Leander incident was part of an escalating British campaign to snuff out commercial competition from England's upstart former colonies.
Finally, as more Americans demanded that their government confront British policies, the American David declared war on the British Goliath in June 1812. From the foremasts of American frigates, banners proclaiming "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights" fluttered.
Amid the public clamor for war, onetime pacifist president Thomas Jefferson tried to explain America's determination, despite the overwhelming might of its former overlords, to persist in the lopsided hostilities. When she learned in July 1812 of America's declaration of war, Paris saloniste and diplomat Madame Germaine de Staël, Jefferson's old friend, wrote to the now former president protesting the United States' attack on Britain, which she deemed the "sole barrier" against the attempts of Napoleon to impose a "universal monarchy." Jefferson secretly wrote back: "My dear Madam; the object of England is the permanent dominion of the ocean, and the monopoly of the trade of the world." Americans, he declared, refusing to revert to the status of Britain's colonial dependents, would continue to fight until the British stopped presuming that they still had the right to dictate where and with whom and what they could trade.
The half-century-long struggle for American independence from Britain commenced almost immediately after a stunning series of British victories in the last French and Indian War, which itself had brought an end to a century and a half of chronic struggle for domination of North America. In London, all through the annus mirabilis of 1759, chiming church bells and booming Tower cannon proclaimed the arrival of every dispatch of a global British victory. Peace with the French promised peace with the Indians, removing the threat of attack from the entire 2,000-mile backcountry of the British-American colonies. With the French vanquished, settlers could surge across the Appalachians from overcrowded coastal colonies into the Ohio Valley and beyond to stake out land. Merchant-investors could now subdivide the forested, fur-rich empire, and trade with the Indians would be exceedingly lucrative.
For Britain's ruling class, the prospect was equally alluring. Long-anticipated rewards of a century of oppressive land taxes and humiliating loans would be incalculable. Breathlessly, Horace Walpole dashed off excited letters: "Victories come so tumbling over one another from distant parts of the globe that it looks like the handiwork of a London romance writer," he wrote to an intimate. To another, "The Romans were 300 years conquering the world. ... We subdued [it] in three campaigns."
To Britain's American colonists, money flowed. Convoys of ships crammed with luxury goods overflowed waterfront wharves, selling as fast as they could be unloaded. In New England alone sixteen shipyards employing a thousand artisans turned hardwood forests into craft to carry wares to the quarter million inhabitants from present-day Portland, Maine, north up to the St. John River to Quebec Province and west over the Berkshires to Lake Champlain.
Amid the jubilation, at 7:30 on the morning of October 25, 1760, seventy-seven-year-old King George II dropped dead, leaving to his grandson, George III, the world's largest modern empire. At Kew House, the unmarried Prince of Wales still lived with his mother, Princess Augusta, and his siblings. At twenty-two, he became the youngest monarch since Elizabeth I.
By nightfall, the tall, thin prince arrived at St. James Palace to confer with his grandfather's chief ministers. There, he received the obeisance of two archrivals: accipitrine William Pitt, the Great Commoner, a spellbinding orator who, as prime minister, had amalgamated British gold with Frederick the Great's Prussian steel; and the stoop-shouldered, obsequious Duke of Newcastle, master of forging Parliamentary majorities with royal bribes and government contracts.
In the customary year of interregnum before the new king's crowning, as courtiers jockeyed for tickets to the coronation, newspapers in America reverently reported the royal funeral:
The Royal Body, carried by 12 Yeomen, was covered by a large Pall of purple Velvet and lined with purple silk, with a fine Holland Sheet, adorned with ten large Escutcheons of the Imperial Arms, Painted on Satin, under a Canopy of purple Velvet.
Finding itself with a far-flung empire, the British Parliament plunged into a thorough review of its taxes in America. A glimpse at the national debt would have horrified any new minister and made him desperate for new revenues. According to the exchequer, it stood at a staggering £137 million, carrying annual interest of £5 million while the cost of administering the empire — including newly conquered territories — had ballooned to £8 million annually. Facing these immense war debts, the Ministry concluded that American colonists had profited most from war and should now begin to pay their fair share of the bills.
For nearly a century, since Parliament first passed a series of Acts of Navigation and Trade in 1663, British attempts at regulating colonial North America's maritime commerce had collided with the colonists' notion of their right to trade freely. The Acts, ratified at a time when global Dutch trade threatened to engulf British overseas commerce, mandated that any colonist-owned cargo must touch a port of England before being sold, no matter its destination. The first Act stated explicitly that no goods from Asia, Africa or America could be brought into England, Ireland or the colonies except in English ships crewed by a majority of Englishmen.
Excerpted from "Unshackling America"
Copyright © 2017 Willard Sterne Randall.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
One: "A Glow of Patriotic Fire"
Two: "Salutary Neglect"
Three: "Force Prevails Now Everywhere"
Four: "For Cutting Off Our Trade"
Five: "To the Shores of Tripoli"
Six: "The Reign of Witches"
Seven: "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights"
Eight: "War Now! War Always!"
Nine: "A Mere Matter of Marching"
Ten: "Purified as by Fire"
Eleven: "Father, Listen to Your Children"
Twelve: "You Shall Now Feel the Effects of War"
Thirteen: "Destroy and Lay Waste"
Fourteen: "Hard War"
Fifteen: "So Proudly We Hail"
Sixteen: "I Must Not Be Lost"
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Simply, a tremendous book reflecting historical events, of our early country's struggle, to become a major force, in this world.