Academic journal article The Historian

Redeemed Honor: The President-Little Belt Affair and the Coming of the War of 1812

Academic journal article The Historian

Redeemed Honor: The President-Little Belt Affair and the Coming of the War of 1812

Article excerpt

IN MAY 1811, thirteen months before the outbreak of the War of 1812, the American frigate President (commanded by Commodore John Rodgers) engaged the British sloop-of-war Little Belt (commanded by Commander Arthur Bingham) in a short, bloody battle approximately fifty miles off the North Carolina coast. The melee resulted in the outgunned Little Belt incurring over twenty casualties and enough structural damage to threaten its seaworthiness. The President sustained little damage, while one of its crewmen was seriously wounded. Controversy immediately ensued over this event: Why did warships of two countries at peace engage in battle? Who fired first? Did one of the commanders act on covert orders? Would this violent episode finally trigger a war between the young republic and its former master?

This lopsided battle had a profound influence on Anglo-American relations and altered popular opinion in both countries. The President-Little Belt Affair increased the American public's confidence in its navy, and it redeemed the service's tarnished honor as it struggled to recover from the humiliation of the Chesapeake-Leopard incident. (1) The American victory also proved that the US Navy could defeat British warships in single-ship engagements. With the bulk of the Royal Navy focused on blockading French ports, the President's triumph revealed America's potential to inflict defeat on England's small, scattered fleet patrolling the western Atlantic.

From the British perspective, the Little Belt's battering changed the public's mindset about fighting the United States. Support for war increased during the summer of 1811, which helped to prepare the population for the conflict that began a year later. Ironically, as the prospect of a fight with the United States increased after the clash, British naval commanders improved their treatment of American vessels.

The President-Little Belt Affair is noted in most works about the War of 1812, but coverage of the event and its influence on Anglo-American relations is somewhat thin. In Sea Power In Its Relations to the War of 1812, Alfred T. Mahan argues that the American commander had a duty to investigate foreign warships operating close to the coast of the United States. (2) Mahan also believes the initiation of gunfire was not premeditated, but that the Little Belt's commander probably fired first. Bradford Perkins's Prologue to War mentions public speculation about Rodgers acting under presidential orders to recover impressed Americans, and he agrees with Mahan about the culpability for firing first. (3) Perkins judges that the event increased sentiment for war in both countries, and helped British and Americans psychologically prepare for the coming struggle. Americans rejoiced that their government no longer acted passively toward Britain, while the British realized the United States would no longer be intimidated by British naval power. Reginald Horsman, Harry L. Coles, and Donald Hickey echo Mahan and Perkins. (4) They stress the near impossibility of determining who fired first, and judge the battle revenge for the defeat of the Chesapeake. Coles also agrees with Perkins's assertion that the bloodshed prepared the mindsets of both populations for the War of 1812. (5)

At the time of the scrape, Anglo-American relations had been deteriorating for almost a decade. Britain's war-time trade policies hampered Americans' ability to trade in foreign markets. The Royal Navy's practice of impressing sailors serving aboard American merchant ships challenged the notion of US sovereignty. The US Navy's pride had not recovered from the pummeling of the U.S.S. Chesapeake, nor had the US received a final settlement for this outrage from the British government.

The United Kingdom also had its grievances with the US. American merchants longed to trade with Britain's enemies: France and its allies (in other words, most of continental Europe). The US tried to foil British efforts to retrieve native-born sailors for military service by issuing certificates of citizenship that foreign sailors could purchase with ease. …

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