American maritime prisoners during the War of 1812 took seriously their government's assertion of "free trade and sailors' rights," but when the United States government failed to make this rhetoric a reality, imprisoned sailors clashed with both British and American officials. The U.S. government lacked effective mechanisms to challenge impressment, influence prisoner exchange, or meet the daily needs of its imprisoned citizens, who often interpreted this inefficacy as indifference to their situation. However, the relative absence of government support gave American prisoners space to create a form of nationalism that stressed self-reliance, cooperative action, aggressive masculinity, and occasional violence and deceit. This nationalism was performative, situational, and conditional, used to extract concessions from their captors and representatives of their government. Prisoners based their expectations of support on their understanding of republican government, their seafaring experiences, their perceptions of their own characters in comparison to foreigners, and their observations on foreign prisoners' interactions with their own national governments. American prisoners employed a wide-ranging language of "rights," but conceptualized their obligations to the United States government in much more modest terms.
Journal of the Early Republic – University of Pennsylvania Press
Published: Sep 1, 2017