Subjects vs. Citizens: Impressment and Identity in the Anglo-American Atlantic
Abstract

Abstract:

This article employs the frame of forced migration to understand the impact of British naval impressment, or forced service, on the early American republic. British press gangs not only posed severe risks to the lives and livelihoods of early American seafarers but led Americans of all backgrounds to define the differences between citizenship in a republic and subjecthood in a monarchy. Subjects held nearly unlimited obligations to their monarch, as in the case of compulsory naval service. Citizens, by contrast, shared a relationship with their state based on consent and choice. The British Royal Navy blurred the distinction between its subjects and U.S. citizens because of a severe manning crisis, and clear evidence that British sailors carried American citizenship protections fraudulently. Still, early national Americans did not accept the capture of their fellow citizens as innocent mistakes; impressment signified a return to British colonial status. The rhetorical power of impressment helps to explain how the issue helped to sustain support for the War of 1812, even after Britain satisfied other U.S. diplomatic demands. Print capitalism made the forced migration of impressed American seamen a collective national experience