Episodes

Episode 2: An Impressive Consul in Liverpool

In this episode, we meet Liverpool consul James Maury, whose job included helping American sailors who had been shipwrecked, were out of work–or were impressed by the British navy! We’ll discuss what impressment was and why it happened, and explore the question of how Maury, and other officials, know who really was an American.

This episode’s experts

Megan Brett

Megan Brett is a digital public historian currently completing her doctorate in history in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. Her dissertation examines the intersection of family strategies and the formation of national identity for Americans abroad in the post revolutionary period, using the Maury family of Virginia and Liverpool as a case study. Prior to arriving at Mason, Megan pursued her masters work in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh, and worked in the curatorial department at James Madison’s Montpelier. By day, she is a Digital History Associate at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, a job which involves wearing many figurative hats.

Denver Brunsman

Denver Brunsman is Associate Professor and Associate (Vice) Chair of the History Department at George Washington University, where his courses include “George Washington and His World,” taught annually at Mount Vernon. His book, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (2013), received the Walker Cowen Memorial Prize for an outstanding work in eighteenth-century studies in the Americas and Atlantic world. He is also a coauthor of a leading college and AP U.S. History textbook, Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (2016; 2020), as well as the e-books Leading Change: George Washington and Establishing the Presidency (2017) and George Washington and the Establishment of the Federal Government (2020).


Transcript

James Maury to Thomas Pinckney, March 24, 1793

Sir, I have this day applied to the Lords of the Admiralty for relief to the American Vessell Fanny at Greenock, which, on the point of sailing with a very valuable Cargo has been deprived of six of her Crew by the regulating officers of that Port. She cannot proceed to Sea that number short of her complement, they cannot be replaced by Americans where she is, nor can she be permitted to take out any of the people of the Country. I pray you will be so good as to patronize my application, if needful.  These men had sworn in America as well as on arrival in Scotland that they were citizens of the United States. They have now taken a third oath that they are not. This swearing and counter-swearing is now become so great an evil, until something better can be pointed out I offer to your Excellency’s consideration the propriety of prosecuting for Perjury in every future Instance. I have the honor to be, with perfect esteem, your excellency’s most obedient and most humble

James Maury

Abby Mullen: When James Maury wrote this letter in 1793, he was feeling frustrated. Sailors that had certificates declaring them as Americans were suddenly turning up in port claiming to be from somewhere else. Maury spent a lot of time in the early years of his consulship in Liverpool trying to sort out who was American and who wasn’t. This might not seem like that big a deal, but it was. If you were an American sailor in Liverpool, not being able to prove your American citizenship could change your entire life.

I’m Abby Mullen, and on this episode of Consolation Prize, we delve into the life of James Maury, American consul in Liverpool. Maury was the official American representative in Liverpool in a time when the United States was still trying to figure out what it was, and who belonged, and how to make sure everyone else in the world knew these things too.

Maury was actually a consul before there was an official consular service. He was appointed in 1790, and the Act establishing the consular service wasn’t even passed until 1792. Maybe that goes to show how important Liverpool was to American trade. But how did he get this appointment? To answer that question, we turn to Megan Brett, who studies the Maury family. 

Megan Brett: So James Maury is in the first group of consuls appointed like out of the gate, he’s one of the initial group. And he’s from Central Virginia. His dad, The Reverend James Maury, ran like an elementary school, a grammar school. And so some of James Maury, the consul’s schoolmates were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, which serves him really well. After the revolution, he is immediately like, “Oh, I think I want to do a consul gig.” He’s already planning on it in the 1780s, and he gives up waiting for the government to get around to appoint consuls and heads off in 1786 to England, with his wife Catherine and writes to his friend Jefferson, who told him to go to Liverpool actually. He was very intent on becoming a consul. And obviously his connections worked for him. He had his friend, Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, and James Madison, and James Monroe to act as sort of references and give him that recommendation.

Abby Mullen: After a few years, Maury finally gets what he wants: a consular post. In 1790, he’s appointed to Liverpool as one of the first American consuls.

Maury’s connections made him an ideal candidate for a consulship. He was a merchant, so he was familiar with American trade. That was important because the consul’s job is literally to keep American trade going in whatever city he’s appointed to. But he’s also a very well-connected merchant, a relatively upper-class person in the United States, who can easily fit into both the upper reaches of American government and the local culture of Liverpool. 

Liverpool is an up and coming town.

Megan Brett: As a city, unlike London which goes back to Roman times, it really takes off and establishes itself in the 18th century. Which means that in a way it’s very similar in sort of age of buildings and layout to cities that you would find in America. There are ways in which Liverpool around 1800 kind of makes me think about Boston or Baltimore. The social elite in Liverpool is almost entirely merchants. So rather than being in a city where you’ve got to deal with the king, and the court, and the upper echelons of nobility, Maury is part of the elite of Liverpool, as a decently well-to-do merchant. And because Liverpool is just getting started, he’s actually in at the beginning of some of the major masculine social organizations, so the Liverpool Athenaeum he’s a founding member of. So, and it’s also just a really good city for trade, it is definitely one of the most profitable ports and busiest ports in Britain, after London. 

So it’s a great place because there’s constantly business in and out, you’re never going to be worried that you know, there’s not enough business. Into the 1790s, a lot of that business is, and even afterwards, is funded by slavery. Because of course even after Britain withdrew from the slave trade. What are they doing? They’re importing cotton to go to Manchester. Where’s the cotton come from? The American South. Even though he’s removed from Virginia, he’s still very tied up in that system of racial slavery. Liverpool is booming, and it’s a great city to be merchant, and it’s really considered to be an American merchant, and you know there are Balls, it’s a good life. It’s a good life.

Abby Mullen: The volume of American trade coming through Liverpool is substantial–one of the most important ports for Americans. This volume means that Maury is never lacking things to do.

Megan Brett: the things that make it great about being a merchant are also some of the things that make it a massive headache for being a consul. For example, the embargoes, he’s constantly dealing with embargo breakers, and any problems that any American ship or sailor might have coming into Liverpool, it’s his headache. And I say Liverpool I should point out that when he first gets that consulate he’s actually in charge of a lot of the West Coast. He could appoint a vice consul, you know he has agents, but he’s in charge of the whole West Coast for a while there. And so any problem with any American ship, or anyone breaking an embargo or being, you know, “Oh we were captured by French privateers and we’ve lost everything,” that’s his problem. And he can pass it on to London, but he is the person people are going to come complain at in person. And just to give you an idea of the volume, for the first six months of 1802, Maury accounts roughly, 101 American ships sailing out of Liverpool. So he’s dealing with a volume of probably anywhere from two to three hundred ships a year, it’s just there’s just so much going on.

Abby Mullen: But there’s more to Maury’s job than just dealing with the everyday crises of sailors. He inadvertently ended up in a place that was a staging ground for the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Even though the United States wasn’t fighting in these wars, American sailors could still pay a price just for being near the conflict. That price was impressment, and eventually it’s one of the things that provokes war between the United States and Great Britain.

Now, since you’re probably not a scholar of the War of 1812, impressment might actually  be the only thing you remember from school about the war, but it has a very long history. I personally needed a little refresher on how impressment worked, so I talked to Denver Brunsman, who studies the history of impressment.

Cartoon of members of the navy threatening men with sticks
Attic Miscellany. Manning the Navy. (press gang) (caricature) Collings, S. Tower of London; Published 1 June 1790

Denver Brunsman: Impressment was a form of forced military service or naval service. And it was used in Great Britain and it dated all the way back to the Middle Ages. And it’s one of these things in England, I guess, much like the monarchy that just persisted. It never went away. And it wasn’t the sole way of manning the Navy. They also enlisted volunteers. But by the 18th century, when the number of wars dramatically increase, particularly between Britain and France, Britain increasingly depends on this institution to get sailors for their ships. Tens of thousands of men for the different wars of the long 18th century. Once a sailor is impressed, he would basically serve the duration of a war. It was different than slavery and a number of respects. The sailor received wages and the impressment, the period of bondage, ended at the end of the war. But as you can imagine it wasn’t very popular with sailors in the 18th century.

Denver Brunsman: This turns out to be an international practice in that the Royal Navy would take men wherever their ships went. But by law, they had to take British subjects. And this is another argument I make based on my research. And that is, that the Royal Navy wasn’t above once in a while taking a non-subject, finding, you know, someone of a different nationality, especially if they could sail. But for the most part, they follow this rule. And this is something that they really want legitimate British subjects. And that’s one thing that makes the controversy with the early United States so fascinating, because a lot of it turns on the question of, “well who was actually a subject or an American citizen?”

Abby Mullen: Sailors received a bounty, or bonus money, when they volunteered for the British Navy. This bounty was available to impressed sailors too, if they officially volunteered after being pressed. Sometimes this acted as an incentive, but for others it didn’t outweigh the risks of a military life.

Abby Mullen: The controversy arises because of a simple fact: the British Navy needed men badly to fight against France, all over the world. When they go looking for men, they’re not that discriminating about who they take. Sometimes they press Americans.

Denver Brunsman: Well, American sailors had been impressed going back to the colonial period. So when they were actually British subjects, they were fair game. And so there was a tradition of impressment in the Western Hemisphere, and of what would be future American citizens. But once America became independent, it became rather confusing at sea to differentiate American citizens from British subjects. And, you know, in fairness, the British government never claimed the right to impress American citizens. They just claimed that they couldn’t tell the difference, or their press gangs couldn’t tell the difference at sea, because there was so many similar cultural things that are shared by each group of people.

Abby Mullen: Of course, the British government isn’t making too much of an effort to respect the sovereignty of the independent United States–at least, not as much as the American government might hope for.

Denver Brunsman: At the beginning of the period, after 1783, after America secures its independence, the British defined American citizenship quite narrowly. Basically, they would only accept that someone was American if they had been in the United States, you know, at the time of the war and independence, and I guess their descendants. So they, I guess they had their own theory of natural born citizenship.

They really didn’t acknowledge the right of naturalization. The idea that a British subject could actually emigrate to the new United States and become a citizen. Because there was a doctrine at the time that was known as indefeasible allegiance, which in 21st century terms basically means once the king’s subject always the king’s subject. So if you’re ever a British subject, you always would be. And this kind of a little bit better with the Jay Treaty of 1794. Somewhere near the end of 1794, 1795, it seems that the British relax their standards a little bit. They acknowledged that basically, anybody who had been in the future United States at the time of the war, even if they had some kind of prior, you know, birth in England or something like that, could be a United States citizen. 

Abby Mullen: At the beginning, there wasn’t a good way for American sailors to prove their citizenship. In 1796, Congress recognized the need for a more formal identification process for these sailors. So they passed the Act for the Protection of American Seamen, which set up a process for documenting the American-ness of sailors. One of the results of that act was a certificate of citizenship.

A printed and handwritten document with the seal of the United States printed at the top.
Certificate of U.S. citizenship for William Coit”, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Denver Brunsman: I imagine that Congress passed this law rather optimistically thinking that it would actually protect the sailors. But of course, every British subject would want one of these documents because it would also protect them from getting impressed. And so there basically becomes a cottage industry in these citizenship protections in the Atlantic world, I mean, they’re made all over the place. And so they’re not trusted automatically by the British government. It ultimately took more for Americans to prove that they were, indeed American citizens.

Abby Mullen: Not just anyone got pressed; the British were looking for experienced seamen, so they focused their efforts on ships at sea, where it was pretty easy to tell the true sailors from the landlubbers. They also sought out common sailors’ haunts in port cities like Liverpool. But aside from looking for men with skills, the British were no respecters of persons: they’d press anyone, even the most well-connected.

Denver Brunsman: James Maury, I think handled more than his share of impressment cases. But I think that he actually got the reputation as someone who was more helpful than some other consuls. And in some ways, actually probably did much more than he needed to. And maybe the two most famous sailors that he helps were in 1810, Charles and John Lewis, who were actually nephews of George Washington, were impressed. They were the sons of Fielding Lewis, who had married Washington’s sister, Betty Washington. And Fielding died fairly young. So you know, these boys didn’t have the life of the typical privilege that you’d expect and so they both ended up at sea. They’re both taken in 1810 and it was just as hard to get them released as any other American sailors and James Maury becomes their main advocate. 

Abby Mullen: So what’s a Maury to do? How can consuls help sailors like the Lewis brothers? Maury wasn’t usually the one issuing the certificates of citizenship–those had to come mostly from the customs houses back in the United States. But these papers weren’t usually enough, so Maury was the one in charge of coordinating each sailor’s identity defense.

Denver Brunsman: So impressment turns out to be one of the big jobs for American consuls in British ports during this period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and it’s probably one that they maybe didn’t completely bargain for. Because sailors once they were impressed, basically needed any advocate possible. They needed help from anybody that they could find. And you know, most of them didn’t have connections in England and so their best connection was often a consul. And so the job of the consul was essentially to be the intermediary between the sailor and the British government in trying to prove one’s citizenship.

And so the British government released just enough Americans, I think, to give hope to all of them that it might be possible. And the best, you know, working figure we have is that about 20% of applications for release are approved. And so not a great rate, but high enough that it was certainly worth, you know, the efforts of the consuls and the sailors to try to get released. And so this produces a lot of paperwork, a lot of letters going back and forth across the Atlantic. Trying to basically scramble and get any evidence possible that these men were actually American.

Abby Mullen: Not every sailor was able to get paperwork that showed his birthplace and residency. In particular, one group of sailors was at a significant disadvantage. According to maritime historian, Jeffrey Bolster, up to 20% of American sailors in this era were black–and they had much more trouble proving their identity.

Denver Brunsman: On the one hand, the sea was something of an equalizer in this period. And so a black sailors would be given the citizenship protections, so this was one area that, you know, African Americans were actually acknowledged as US citizens, if not, and all of the benefits of citizenship, at least just in a very formal sense, in this bureaucratic sense, of this passport like document. But then what happened if they were impressed, they had a much more difficult time getting free. They would have to write home and basically get all the same types of documents that they had first had to produce to get their citizenship protection in the first place, and anything more. Any kind of affidavits from former employers, relatives, birth documents, marriage documents.

And so for African American sailors, it turns out this was a much harder thing to do because they had less of a paper trail than a lot of white seamen. And, you know, there’s really kind of a chilling echo of that, to this very day with your various voter suppression laws and, various demands to produce different types of paperwork and documentation by groups of people that might not have might not have that paperwork for, you know, a lot of different reasons. 

Abby Mullen: White or black, seamen in trouble from impressment often found their way to Maury. The trouble is that his own constituents sometimes made life difficult. It’s bad enough when Americans who have been impressed don’t have papers at all, but it is even worse when they do have papers and it appears they’re forged. And even worse than that, sometimes sailors that Maury knew and believed to be American, suddenly repudiated their American citizenship in order to sign on to a different vessel.

Megan Brett: Maury is dealing with sailors who play the game, you know, there are false certificates out there, people will sell their certificates. People will sail out of the United States on a US ship with papers that they got by swearing they were an American in the United States, they show up in Liverpool, and then they’re like, “ah, I lied,” and sign up for a British ship, and I think it’s a matter of money honestly for the sailors. 

Abby Mullen: Remember, sailors who were impressed received both regular wages and a signing bonus. But in order to receive the bonus, they had to renounce their American citizenship and declare once again that they were British. For some, the bounty was worth the change. But these shifts in allegiance made the British bolder about taking anyone who might have been British at some point.

No matter how many sailors Maury certified, there were always more. Of course Maury wasn’t the only consul to have these problems with identifying and certifying impressed sailors, but he seems to have been one of the most proactive in securing their release. Maury was called into so many of these cases that he made up his own form that he could send back to the sailor’s connections in the United States so that they could help sailors find the appropriate paperwork. Here’s an example: 

March 25, 1812
Daniel Baker has been impressed into the Service of His Britannic Majesty, and is detained on board the HMS Princess

If he be really an American, I recommend that you send, without delay, regular proof thereof to the Secretary of State of the United States at Washington, or to William Lyman, Esq.Agent in London for the Protection of American Seamen, in order that his discharge may be obtainedHe informs me you are his father. [signed James Maury]

Abby Mullen: Maury added that last little bit, the “He informs me you are his father,” by hand, because this form was going to Daniel Baker Sr. But other than that, all the specific details were just filled-in blanks on a form. Perhaps it’s a sign of Maury’s dedication that at the time he sent this form letter, Baker wasn’t even in Liverpool anymore–he had already shipped out on a British naval vessel that was now in Lisbon. Verifying a sailor’s identity could take a very long time, and the British Navy was not usually willing to wait. This was even true for Maury’s most famous case.

What happened to those nephews of George Washington? Let’s pick up their case while they’re still trying to prove their identity.

Denver Brunsman: They write back to America and actually write to even Mount Vernon to try to get  whoever they can to certify who John and Charles Lewis were. Actually Bushrod Washington, Washington’s main heir, his nephew Bushrod vouches for them among other people. And so, Charles ends up getting released in late 1811. John stays in the British Navy longer, and there’s even documentation to suggest that he might have died in the Navy in 1814. But then amazingly, he shows up at the British Invasion of Washington, D.C. in August of 1814. And by newspaper accounts at that time, he had been recently released from the Navy and was still angry and mad at the British. And so he might have been the bravest defender of Washington, and actually ends up getting shot and died.

Abby Mullen: Though the War of 1812 ended badly for John Lewis, it’s the beginning of the end of the impressment crisis. Technically, impressment never officially ended–it just petered out. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British needed fewer recruits for the Navy, and the threat dissipated. So when the War of 1812 was over, impressment became a non-issue.

That wasn’t the end of the road for Maury. He went back to doing all the other things consuls do: paying hospital bills, acting as legal advocates for sailors who break the law, sending effects home, and dozens of other things.

portrait of James Maury, an elderly white man with white hair wearing early 19th century clothing
Gilbert Stuart Newton, James Maury (1746-1840), 1825. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool UK

Maury stayed a consul long enough to see ten ambassadors from the United States in London. He was a shrewd consul who knew the value of punting things up the chain when the identity questions were too complicated for him to solve. He was also extremely conscientious, so he had a sparkling reputation amongst the higher-ups in the State Department. 

When he finally retired, Maury was eighty-three years old. He had not only survived a war with Great Britain, but he had overseen American sailors’ needs at one of the busiest ports in Great Britain for 39 years. His service didn’t go unnoticed by the British merchants he had worked with for so long.

Megan Brett: The mercantile community of Liverpool actually gets together when they’re like oh he’s not consul anymore, to give him a gift to honor these decades of service both to Liverpool and to America. And it’s like the big names of Liverpool society are there. This one guy Richard Rathbone says he “was always gentle, kind, and conciliating, while he was no less firm, manly, impartial, and consistent,” which is such an early 19th century way of being like “he’s a good dude.”

Abby Mullen: At the end of the day, the question Maury always had to ask himself was, “who is an American? And how do we know?” Even aside from impressment issues, Maury had to decide in every case what his obligation was to a sailor who came asking for help, and very often that obligation hinged on the identity of the sailor. 

Megan Brett: It’s also sort of an interesting thing to reflect on how difficult that was to prove in an era when we have smartphones, and passports, and social security numbers identified at birth and all of these forms of identification. And back then it was a piece of paper with maybe a vague description of what the person looked like that might fit sixty men in that port–middling height, brown hair, brown eyes, maybe, a mole. But I think the other thing that’s worth contemplating, in light of today and also historically, is to think about those sailors who gave Maury such a headache, who were more willing to see nationality, and a national allegiance, flexibly. And what does that mean, what do we think today about what it means to be a member of a nation. 

Credits

Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. This episode is produced by me, Abby Mullen, and Megan Brett. Special thanks to our experts this week, the afore-mentioned Megan Brett, and Denver Brunsman. You can see more about them in our show notes at consolationprize.rrchnm.org. 

Music is by Andrew Cote; voice actors are Christopher Lewis and Anthony Garland. Please like and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts–and tell your friends! Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you soon.

Images in our chapter art:


Further Reading

  • Brunsman, Denver. “Subjects vs. Citizens: Impressment and Identity in the Anglo-American Atlantic.” Journal of the Early Republic 30, no. 4 (2010): 557–86. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_the_early_republic/v030/30.4.brunsman.html.
  • Brunsman, Denver. The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Charlottesville; London: University of Virginia Press, 2013.
  • Keegan, Nicholas M. US Consular Representation in Britain since 1790. London, UK ; Anthem Press, 2018.
  • Perl-Rosenthal, Nathan. Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015.