British impressment of American sailors was one of the major causes of the War of 1812. It helped to cause the war because it emphasized the fact that the British did not respect American sovereignty.
The British navy had traditionally impressed men off of British ships and out of British port towns. It was a legal thing to do to British people. When the British impressed American sailors, then, they were treating the Americans as if they were still British subjects. This was extremely offensive to the United States as an independent country. For this reason, impressment helped to lead the US to fight back against Britain and prove its independence in the War of 1812.
Service in the British Navy was exceptionally brutal; so much so that sailors were not allowed to leave their own ship when in home port, for fear that they would not return. When British ships docked at American ports, some did jump ship, and "press gangs" were often used when American ships were stopped at sea.
Even so, Impressment was perhaps a minor element in the War of 1812, so much so that it is not mentioned either in the formal Declaration of War cited below, or in the Treaty of Ghent of 1814 which ended the war. Other, perhaps more important elements contributed to the war more than impressment:
- It was believed that the British had stirred up Indians in the Northwest and West, thus provoking them to attack American settlements.
- The demand that American rights of neutrality be respected. In fact, Americans had hardly been neutral in the war between Britain and France; they had traded with both sides, and at one point almost went to war with France. Still, the U.S. protested neutrality, and bitterly resisted attempts by either France or Britain to stop trade with the other.
- The hope by a number of members of Congress, including John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, that Canada could be successfully invaded and ceded to the U.S. Senator John Randolph called them "war hawks," and commented:
We have heard but one word—like the whippoorwill, but one eternal monotonous tone: "Canada! Canada! Canada!"
Impressment therefore was a casus belli of the war, but not the primary cause, although it was probably the cause most vociferously expressed.