Sunday, March 3, 2013

Paul A. Gilje's "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights in the War of 1812"

Paul A. Gilje is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Free Trade and Sailors' Rights in the War of 1812, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights in the War of 1812 opens Chapter 7, “Impressment,” and begins with the following two sentences: “Nothing threatened the common American sailor more than being compelled to serve in the British navy. Impressment challenged the rights of American citizens at sea and therefore challenged the American national identity.” These two sentences point to the very heart of the book – an exploration of the meaning of the War of 1812 as it was reflected in the phrase “free trade and sailors’ rights,” the most important political slogan in the War of 1812. Focusing on free trade and sailors’ rights provides meaning to what has been considered a meaningless war. The phrase itself combines two crucial ideas derived from the American Revolution. Free trade refers to a complex of ideas whereby the revolutionaries hoped to change world diplomacy by setting up a system of commerce unfettered by imperial constraints which historians call mercantilism. Sailors’ rights, too, harked back to the American Revolution and the belief that all men were created equal and that each man, even the humble sailor, had rights. As page 99 and chapter 7 demonstrate, those rights were threatened by the British practice of impressment (the forced recruitment of sailors from American ships into the British navy) and became central to how Americans explained the War of 1812. My book therefore explores the origins of the war, reaching back into the eighteenth century, details the role of the slogan “free trade and sailors’ rights” during that conflict, and then traces the motto in the decades after the war to demonstrate the importance of our second war with Great Britain in American memory up until the eve of the Civil War.
Read an excerpt from Free Trade and Sailors' Rights in the War of 1812, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue