• War of 1812 British Impressment of American Soldiers Leads to Libel Suit in Massachusetts

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    JOHN PICKERING (1777-1846) was the oldest son of Revolutionary War officer and former Secretary of State Colonel Timothy Pickering (1745-1829). John Pickering was a Harvard College graduate and an extraordinary linguist fluent in or with knowledge of English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Turkish, and Arabic. After serving as the secretary to the U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, Pickering returned to Massachusetts and opened a law office. He was elected to the General Court of Massachusetts where, as we know, he served as chairman of a committee that published a Report on the Subject of Impressed Seamen with the Evidence and Documents Accompanying It.

    During the Republican Convention of March 1813, JOHN KNEELAND, a representative from Andover, MA, who was serving as convention moderator, accused Pickering and other members of the Committee on Impressments of misrepresenting information to the people of the Essex South District. Kneeland claimed that, contrary to committee findings, there were only 157 cases where Massachusetts citizens had been impressed into British naval service, and that there was motive behind this misrepresentation. Pickering filed a libel suit against Kneeland.

    In this 2 pp, 8 ¼ x 9 ¾, ALS, written from Salem, MA, on November 20, 1813, Pickering urges an unnamed associate to provide favorable testimony in the libel suit.  As Pickering explains, "The libel was contained in an address of the Republican Convention of Essex South District…published last month & signed by Mr. Kneeland…The paragraph charged us with attempting in a most reprehensible manner to impose upon the people that there were only 157 cases of impressment from the whole state when in the town to which one of the committee belonged, that number was greatly exceeded. These are nearly the words of libel. The defendant you will be astonished at the effrontery means to justify! How he expects to maintain his answer, I cannot conceive. The action stands for trial at our present court which has adjourned till Monday after next; and it has occurred to me that the defendant may possibly make use of our colleague, W. Breed, as a witness. You recollect Breed’s feelings well & if he testifies as he felt in the Committee, it will be necessary for me to have some evidence to meet his. The object therefore of this letter is to request you to go before some magistrate & give your deposition without delay & forward it to me immediately. I wish you to testify as to the conduct of the committee generally during the whole of their sittings and of my conduct particularly so far as you can with a clear conscience. State particularly how much pains we took to obtain the names of well-informed witnesses in different towns & that we desired every member of the Committee to name such witnesses…The essence of the libel is that we conducted the business unfairly, partially & with a design to impose upon the public ...The testimony on our part will of course go to negative these changes in the most explicit & positive manner and you will direct your deposition, so far as you recollect the facts, to those points. State among other facts that we faithfully reported all the cases that came to our knowledge & occupied ourselves with the utmost diligence during the Session in prosecuting the enquiry—perhaps you might also state that the Report itself is true, impartial & c…"

    Impressment, or the forced enlistment of sailors into naval service, was one of the causes of the War of 1812. The British Navy, desperate to fill its ranks of killed, maimed, or deserted sailors, regularly stopped vessels on the high seas and "shanghaied" passerby on mainland docks to fill their ranks. If the person in question could not present citizenship papers, they could legally be forced to join the British navy. The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair in 1807 caused considerable diplomatic tension between the United States and Great Britain and highlighted the issue of impressment. This incident, in which the British frigate HMS Leopard demanded to search the USS Chesapeake for three British deserters, resulted in conflict. The USS Chesapeake refused and the HMS Leopard opened fire, killing three sailors and injuring eighteen. In response, President Thomas Jefferson issued the Embargo Act, forbidding British ships in American waters. Jefferson later reflected that "The affair of the Chesapeake put war into my hand ... "

    In very good condition with folds and a small edge tear. A few light smears. Likely penned in haste by Pickering as he has crossed out a few words and some full passages. But very readable and a great piece of history.


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