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Response to Review of Poseidon’s Curse: British Naval Impressment and Atlantic Origins of the American Revolution

I am grateful to the editors of Reviews in History for providing this forum for discussion and for soliciting my response.

I would not expect the author of Liberty on the Waterfront to have many positive things to say about my book. The evidence I uncovered contradicts his interpretation of both the history of sailors and the origins of the American Revolution. 18th-century workers were not apolitical lumps of clay who sat around waiting for wealthy, educated hands to mold them into rebels. For their part, maritime laborers maintained well-thought-out understandings of liberty and tyranny. These political values emerged out of workplace experiences and struggles over a long span of time.

I do expect Gilje, or any other academic reviewer to state my case in a fair manner, but I was disappointed in this regard. Gilje does not mention in his review a central part of my argument: the Parliamentary legislation in 1708 that banned impressment in North America. This is a very curious and perhaps telling omission. Colonial workers and entrepreneurs in North America cited the ‘Sixth of Anne’ (so-called because the 1708 legislation was passed in the sixth year of Queen Anne’s reign) in anti-impressment protests throughout the remainder of the 18th century. Colonial merchants and mariners understood that new legislation passed in 1746 tacitly overturned the Sixth of Anne and approved of the work of press gangs in North America and that this posed a direct threat to economic and political freedoms in this part of the world. The state-sanctioned military appropriation of private property and free labor jeopardized merchants’ ability to control property and pursue profits. Entrepreneurs linked these threats to tyranny. Impressment put at risk mariners’ ability to pursue occupational mobility and increased earning potential. They likened these threats to tyranny. When Parliament formally and explicitly revoked the Sixth of Anne in 1775, colonists in North America revolted. The Sixth of Anne is thus central to understanding Americans’ particular fear and loathing toward impressment, which was used around the Atlantic World. If Gilje had discussed my treatment of this impressment legislation and its colonial opposition, he would not have been able to paint me as a ‘whiggish’ historian who ‘reads later events into the past’.

The longstanding nature of colonial resentment toward impressment in North America did not make the American Revolution inevitable. Gilje is wrong to suggest that my work ‘elides the contingency of the moment’ and depicts colonial protests that ‘inevitably lead to revolution’. I argue that contingences converted this resentment into rebellion. These included the Sixth of Anne, along with the 1746 and 1775 impressment legislation, and certain shifts in imperial policy that resulted from blue water advocates carrying the day in Parliament. These imperial planners wanted to expand Britain’s navy and colonial commerce to weaken France and increase British power in Europe. Their ambitions and actions caused an expansion of impressment activity in North America and an increase in colonial fears regarding the abuse of state power. This in turn led to the contingency – and agency – of resistance and revolt.

Naval impressment appeared in the Declaration of Independence as one of the chief grievances Americans held against the British government. Scholars such as Gilje who want to argue that resistance to impressment was apolitical prior to the Revolution must confront this reality. The Declaration reveals fundamental causes of the Revolution. One would be hard pressed to find another written account of a sizeable group of Americans getting together over an extended period of time and giving careful consideration to the origins of the imperial crisis. To reduce the Declaration to ‘propaganda’ packed with ‘half truths and distortions’ misses the real fear and anger in the document. It also misses its rhetorical and political purpose to convince people at home and abroad that the British government had devolved into a tyranny. There was widespread recognition in North America and overseas that impressment was an arbitrary infringement on liberty. A protest against impressment was a powerful way for Founding Fathers and ordinary mariners to justify armed rebellion against a legally constituted government. Americans who raised impressment as a grievance in and out of Congressional halls insisted that the state appropriation of private property and free labor was a longstanding infringement on political and economic freedoms. They showed how historical contingencies converted resentment to rebellion. That is why the Declaration refers to a ‘long train of abuses’. Americans expected the world and posterity to come to terms with the history of the abuse of state power that led to the Revolution. By suggesting that Americans were reacting only to recent events in 1776, Gilje misses the longer and deeper struggle for freedom.