After the resumption of war between France and Great Britain, British ships frequently harassed American trade vessels in the Atlantic. Not only did the harassment disrupt America’s international trade, but it also resulted in the impressment of American sailors. Because of desertions in the Royal (British) Navy, British naval forces had to recover their losses. As a result, they forced Americans to serve in their navy. They justified impressment by claiming that because American sailors were once British, they were always British.
On June 22, 1807, the British frigate Leopard stopped the U.S. frigate Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia and demanded permission to search the ship for British deserters. When their demand was refused, the British attacked the American ship killing three sailors and wounding 18 more. After the attack, British naval forces announced their intention to search all American vessels. In response, Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807 which put a complete stop to all foreign exports, and which virtually stopped all imports. The point of the Embargo Act was to punish the British and French until they began to respect the authority of the American nation. In actuality, however, American merchants were punished because they were prohibited from exporting. In 1809, Jefferson signed the Non-Intercourse Act which repealed the Embargo Act and opened foreign trade to all countries except France and Great Britain. The Non-Intercourse Act proved impossible to enforce, and was replaced with Macon’s Bill Number 2 by Congress in 1810. Macon’s Bill Number 2 allowed for the resumption of trade with all nations including Great Britain and France.
Napoleon I of France indicated he would respect U.S. neutrality in the war between England and France, if the U.S. reimposed non-intercourse with England. The U.S. president at the time, James Madison agreed, and subsequently suspended trade with England. Pressured by Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and others, Madison called up 100,000 militiamen for six months service for the purposes of declaring war on England.
Despite poor preparations, weak military units, a central government that was not taken seriously in the northeast, and opposition from the Federalist Party, the war commenced. It started off poorly as U.S. forces were routed in several attempts to invade English strongholds in Canada. Furthermore, British Naval forces had staged a powerful naval blockade along much of America’s Atlantic coast which prevented any imports or exports. On August 19, 1812, British forces and their allied Indians invaded and took Detroit, Michigan. U.S. Naval forces did manage a victory against British forces off the coast of Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, the blockade remained in place.