Impressment: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 What is Impressment?
  • 0:33 Impressment Policy
  • 2:45 Impressment and the…
  • 3:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll define the term 'impressment' and explore how and why this policy was carried out. We'll also place this policy in historical context by identifying its effects.

What Is Impressment?

Impressment refers to the act in which men were captured and forced into naval service. While many nations at various times in history have employed a policy of impressment, the term is usually used in reference to Great Britain's Royal Navy. The Royal Navy adopted an aggressive policy of impressment throughout the 17th to early 19th centuries. Impressment was one of the leading causes of the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. Great Britain ended impressment in 1814.

Impressment Policy

The policy of impressment during wartime was legal under British law and dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period. Under British law, all British subjects, with a few minor exceptions, could be conscripted into the service of the Royal Navy. Elizabeth I, Charles I, and other rulers employed the policy extensively. Impressment was particularly common throughout the 1700s, as Great Britain was involved in a number of wars.

Throughout the 1700s, the Royal Navy had difficulty filling its ranks. Life in the navy was difficult, and desertion was common. To ensure the Royal Navy had enough men, it often resorted to impressment. To execute this policy, the Impress Service was set up. Commonly known as 'press gangs,' the Impress Service would typically roam coastal regions looking for young men between the ages of 18 and 45 to impress into service.

Press gangs also roamed the sea and had the authority to stop merchant ships and impress sailors into service. Taverns also became a popular location for press gangs to abduct men. Vagrants and those of the lower classes were more often impressed than those of the middle or upper classes. Certain exemptions were made at times.

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