by Bill Doughty
Just as slavery would become the defining reason for the Civil War by mid-19th Century, impressment was the match-to-the-fuse to the War of 1812.
“Impressment” describes the practice by the British Navy in the 1700s and 1800s of capturing suspected deserters -- even boarding and seizing American ships and confiscating property to do so.
The violation of freedom and sovereignty angered President Thomas Jefferson at the turn of the century and became an explosive issue for President James Madison in his first term starting in 1809. Impressment and embargoing by Britain led to the United States Congress to declare war “in defense of freedom of the seas and sailors’ rights,” according to Charles E. Bodine Jr., Michael J. Crawford and Christine F. Hughes.
The authors explain how the War of 1812 became necessary, was fought and is remembered -- with USS Constitution as a centerpiece -- in Interpreting Old Ironsides.
"Confirming America’s political and economic independence dominated the new republic’s foreign relations during the first twenty-five years of its existence. Fear that Britain’s maritime policies robbed the United States of its honor and relegated it to a colonial status convinced the Madison administration that war was the only alternative... While war came reluctantly to both sides, once engaged, they both anticipated a quick resolution -- the United States expected the British to come to terms quickly and the latter predicted a swift military victory. Both parties underestimated the other’s resolve. A combination of economic and military circumstances, in tandem with some astute American diplomacy, brought the war to an end."
Interpreting Old Ironsides, An Illustrated Guide to USS Constitution is published by the Naval Historical Center, with a forward by former director of the center Rear Adm. Paul E. Tobin Jr.
The book is designed as a tool, according Tobin, a training guide in three parts -- basic, advanced and master -- for understanding the “national icon.” USS Constitution is described from blueprint to warship to symbol of diplomacy and freedom, the heart of OPSAIL cruises.
In the Basic section the authors show in great detail the armaments, strategies and discipline aboard Old Ironsides.
The Advanced Level presents the key history and context of the Barbary Wars, Preble’s Boys, and a short history of the War of 1812.
It’s in Part III, the Master Level, that the book explores the diplomatic and political nuances of the War of 1812 and its aftermath.
Part IV provides reprints of actual logbook entries from USS Constitution in 1812, a journal extract from Commodore William Bainbridge, letters to the Secretary of the Navy, a chronology of Constitution in the War of 1812, and U.S. Navy Regulations from 1814, among other fascinating artifacts.
As an illustrated guide, the book offers photos, drawings and diagrams to give a comprehensive look at Old Ironsides. This authors provide a good balance of the “who, what, when, where and why,” of USS Constitution’s past in the context of “how” -- illuminating the causes of a war that helped the United States win freedom of the seas 200 years ago.
USS Constitution conducts an underway demonstration in Boston Harbor Sept. 16, 2011. Photo by MC2 Kathryn E. Macdonald.