Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
week in our series, Steve Ember and Shirley Griffith continue the story of
Thomas Jefferson's second term as president.
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In the early eighteen hundreds, Britain and France were at war with each other.
The United States remained neutral. President Jefferson did not want to become
involved in a war. He believed it would destroy all the progress he had made.
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economic policies had helped to pay much of the national debt. And he was able
to reduce taxes. Staying neutral was not easy, however. The United States was
having trouble with Britain.
For many years, Britain had been taking men by force to serve in its navy. The
custom was called 'impressment.' Britain claimed the right to impress -- or
seize -- any British citizen, anywhere.
Conditions in the British navy were not good at that time, and many sailors
deserted. Some went to work on American ships. The American ships were stopped
and searched in British waters.
Anyone born in Britain was seized. Several thousand sailors were taken off
American ships during the early eighteen hundreds. Sometimes, American citizens
were taken by mistake.
Impressment was one of two major problems the United States was having with
Britain in the early eighteen hundreds. The other problem was trade.
Britain wanted to stop the United States from trading with France and its
colonies. British warships blocked the port of New York all through the year
eighteen-oh-five. No American ship could leave without being searched. When
goods for France were discovered, the ship was taken to Halifax on the coast of
There, a British court had the power to seize the goods and force the ship's
owners to pay a large amount of money.
President Jefferson protested this interference in American trade. He sent
James Monroe to London to negotiate a treaty. Jefferson wanted Britain to stop
taking sailors from American ships, and to stop interfering in the trade of
neutral nations. Monroe tried many times to discuss such an agreement. But the
British foreign minister was always too busy to see him.
In Washington, Congress decided to act and not wait for a treaty. The House of
Representatives debated two proposals.
One proposal would stop all goods from being imported into the United States
from Britain and its colonies. Imports would be permitted only after Britain
had answered America's protests.
The representative who offered the proposal said: "We do not wish to
destroy the ties that ought to join nations of the same interests. To prevent
this, we want an agreement that will satisfy both the United States and
Britain. But if Britain continues its hostile acts, then we must loosen these
ties of friendship."
Some members of Congress felt that this measure was too extreme. They believed
it might lead to war with Britain. The second proposal was more moderate. It
would ban only those British goods which could be gotten from other places.
The House of Representatives debated the two proposals. After four months, it
finally approved a ban on the import of some British goods.
President Jefferson did not want the trade ban to last long. He pressed for an
agreement with Britain. He sent William Pinkney to assist James Monroe in
The two diplomats were told to make clear to Britain what it must do to end the
limited ban on British imports. Britain was to stop taking sailors from
American ships. It was to stop interfering with trade between the United States
and the colonies of France. And it was to pay for all property seized from
Monroe and Pinkney knew they could never reach an agreement if they obeyed
their orders. So they decided to negotiate on their own as best they could.
They dropped the demand for payment for seized property. And they accepted a
note -- separate from the agreement – about impressment. The note promised that
Britain would be careful not to seize any more American sailors.
At the end of December, eighteen-oh-six, Monroe and Pinkney sent word to
Washington that the treaty was ready. But from the way their note was written,
it seemed the treaty might not be satisfactory.
Secretary of State James Madison wrote back. He said if the two diplomats could
get no clear agreement on the question of impressment, then the talks should
end without a treaty.
But it was too late. Monroe and Pinkney had signed the agreement.
President Jefferson was angry. His negotiators had disobeyed his orders. He
refused to send the treaty to the Senate for approval. And he said he would
tell Monroe and Pinkney to re-open negotiations.
Before that could happen, an incident added more fuel to the diplomatic fire. A
British navy ship attacked the American Navy ship Chesapeake while looking for
Britain believed that some of the deserters were on the American ship. The
United States said the men were American citizens who had been forced to serve
in the British navy. It refused to return them.
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When the Chesapeake sailed out of American waters, the British ship tried to
stop it and search it. The American captain did not stop. The British ship
first fired two shots in front of the Chesapeake. Then it fired all its guns
directly at the American ship. The Chesapeake was able to answer with only one
gun. The American captain surrendered.
News of the British attack spread quickly. President Jefferson ordered all
British navy ships in American waters to leave at once. He told citizens not to
aid them. And he said any person -- American or British -- who disobeyed his
orders would be arrested.
In London, James Monroe protested the attack on the Chesapeake. But the British
foreign minister did not want to talk about the incident. Monroe saw little
purpose in remaining. So he sailed for home.
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days after he left London, the British government announced a new rule. It said
any American ship sailing to Europe must stop first in Britain to get
permission. Ships violating the rule would be seized. Relations between the two
countries had reached the breaking point.
When President Jefferson learned of the new rule, he called a cabinet meeting
to discuss the crisis. He said the United States had three choices: Go to war
with Britain. Stop all trade with Europe. Do nothing. Jefferson supported the
second choice -- a total embargo -- no trade with Europe.
The president sent a special message to Congress. He proposed that no ships be
permitted to enter the United States, and no ships be permitted to leave. Both
houses of Congress approved Jefferson's proposal. He signed the measure in the
closing days of eighteen-oh-seven.
Jefferson later explained why he thought the embargo was the best choice of
He said if American ships had sailed out of American waters, they would have
been seized by Britain or France. That would have forced the United States into
war. Jefferson said: "It was far better to stop all communications with
these nations until they returned to some sense of justice."
Jefferson's decision, and continuing tense relations with Britain, caused
problems through his final days as president. The situation did not improve for
America's next president, James Madison. That will be our story next week.
program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Steve Ember and
Shirley Griffith. Join us each week for THE MAKING OF A NATION – an American
history series in VOA Special English. Transcripts, podcasts and MP3s of our
programs can be found at voaspecialenglish.com.
program #41 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION