Paul Gilje’s Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights in the War of 1812 is one of the best of many books recently published to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812. His argument centers on a banner unfurled by Captain David Porter, one of the American naval heroes during the war, amidst a confrontation with a rival British commander. Emblazoned with the slogan “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” Porter’s flag flew atop the frigate Essex in a defiant display meant to rally his own seamen and goad his adversaries. Yet that fateful phrase, so instrumental in justifying the initial American declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812, went on to possess a political life of its own.
As Gilje very skillfully demonstrates, each half of that singular equation possessed a history prior to the war which made American citizens particularly receptive to it as a rationale for combat. “Free trade” was an elastic term possessed of at least five different meanings which Gilje delineates. The author traces each definition to Enlightenment–era economic theory increasingly critical of mercantilism and its emphasis on protectionist policy meant to enrich empires while [End Page 599] crippling rival states. American revolutionaries imagined themselves rebelling against such antiquated policies and ushering in a new era of international relations rooted in the free and peaceful exchange of goods on seas open to the ships of all nations. “Sailors’ rights,” on the other hand, possessed a more plebeian meaning. It spoke to a long tradition of popular resistance to impressment, or coerced enlistment of sailors, into the chronically undermanned Royal Navy. Common sailors were often in the forefront of the War for Independence meant to overthrow the tyrannical British crown responsible for orchestrating this forced-labor regime. And yet with that war won, mariners found that American citizenship did not necessarily protect them from impressment. The Royal Navy, while fighting Napoleonic France, regularly boarded American ships, seized property, and stole men accused of being British deserters. American outrage over such policies finally boiled over in 1812, with Congress and the broader public expressing exasperation over repeated British violations of national sovereignty. The attractiveness of “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” as a justification for war, as Gilje makes abundantly clear, was the way it united diverse national interests. The high politics of “free trade” and international law mingled with a more democratic impulse toward protecting the rights of ordinary maritime workers.
With the war declared, however, both its Republican proponents and Federalist opponents seized upon “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” to attack one another. President James Madison’s administration claimed to be involved in a noble and principled struggle which New England–based critics unpatriotically undermined. Federalists, for their part, positioned themselves as the true representatives of “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” inasmuch as their peace-oriented plans would not interrupt commerce or leave sailors unemployed behind the lines of a tightening British blockade. “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” in other words, was a phrase that helped to structure the politics of an era. It signaled larger policy disputes and mobilized constituencies. In fact, Gilje’s impressive archival legwork further reveals how long after the conclusion of the War of 1812 “Free [End Page 600] Trade and Sailors’ Rights” continued to appear regularly in national political discourse. Democratic Party rallies, striking sailors seeking higher wages, southern sectionalists, and abolitionists protesting the mistreatment of black seamen all latched upon the motto to advance their particular interests. By the eve of the Civil War, Gilje concludes, the motto had “become a catch-all that was almost divorced from its original meaning” (p. 337).
Of course, there are moments where the focus placed on a single phrase may lead the author to overstate his case for “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” as the particular motivation that explained the American involvement in the War of 1812. Territorial expansion—which Gilje acknowledges but then sets aside as “too self-serving, too aggrandizing, or too...