What is significant about the British Imprisonment of American sailors and Jefferson's Embargo?

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mkoren | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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The British practice of impressing our sailors was of serious concern to Americans.  Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson all understood that avoiding war with other countries was very important to this new country, the United States.  There were many instances where Washington and Adams could have gone to war, but they chose diplomacy instead, even if, as in Adam's case, it hurt him politically.  By enacting the Embargo Act, Jefferson was looking for a similar way to avoid conflict.  It is important to note that we were also having issues with France interfering with our shipping.  Thus, the thinking was that if we don't trade at all, we won't get into squabbles with other countries, especially Britain and France.  However, since most of our trade was with these two countries, this policy was doomed to fail.  Even the subsequent passage of the Non-Intercourse Act was doomed to fail because it still banned trade with Britain and France.  These policies showed us that we would have to prove to the world powers that we wouldn't be pushed around.  Eventually, this led to conflict with England which was perceived as the bigger threat to our trade, economy, and rights as a neutral nation at this time.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the most significant aspects about the British imprisonment of American sailors was how it displayed American challenges with England as being far from over. Despite Jefferson's Embargo Act, it was clear that escalated action was going to be necessary.

After the American Revolution, most Americans had firmly put England out of their minds. The nation had firmly established itself with a revolution, a new constitution, and land ordinances that defined statehood. However, England's impressment of sailors showed a continual disrespect for America. England continued to violate American rights into the 19th Century, just as it had a century before. The rallying cry for many Americans was "Free trade and sailors' rights." It underscored how little respect England had for America. Despite all the young nation had done, England was still pestering it. 

To that end, Jefferson's Embargo was significant because it proved that England would have to be dealt with once and for all. The intent behind the Embargo Act was to avoid taking sides in the conflict between England and France. Jefferson sought to pursue a path of neutrality in the midst of warring European powers. His hope that England will "treat us better" resulted in quite the opposite. England and France continued to defy American aims. Jefferson's Embargo hurt American business interests. It also caused the American public to question the value of its government. Seeing the effects of the Embargo, the public was asking what good was it when government makes rules no one follows? After seeing the effects, Jefferson concluded that his hopes were dashed.

The time had come for another conflict. Violations to national sovereignty were evident in the imprisonment of American sailors and in the lack of respect for the Embargo Act. Both actions were significant because they demonstrated the need for a "second war of independence." The War of 1812 loomed, largely as a result of both realities.  

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