impressment

impressment, forcible enrollment of recruits for military duty. Before the establishment of conscription, many countries supplemented their militia and mercenary troops by impressment. In England, impressment began as early as the Anglo-Saxon period and was used extensively under Elizabeth I, Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell. "Press gangs" forcibly seized and carried individuals into service; frequently subjects of foreign countries were taken. After 1800, England restricted impressment mostly to naval service. The Napoleonic Wars increased English need for sea power and led to the impressment of a large number of deserters, criminals, and British subjects who had become naturalized Americans. (Until 1850, England did not recognize the right of a man to renounce his nationality.) Frequent interception of American ships (see Chesapeake) to impress American citizens was a major cause of the War of 1812. England generally abandoned such forcible measures after 1835. In Prussia, impressment was introduced by Frederick William I after 1713, laying the groundwork for Prussian military power in the 18th cent. It reached its height under Frederick II (Frederick the Great) who made forced recruitment on foreign soil an integral part of the Prussian military system. Impressment was used in many countries as a method of ridding society of undesirables. Persons of property, apprenticed youths, and other respectable citizens were often exempted by law. The system fostered gross abuses and was often a means of private vengeance. It filled the army and navy with a group ready for mutiny, desertion, or other disloyalty, and it adversely affected voluntary recruitment. After 1800 impressment tended to become a means of enforcing conscription, and it fell into disuse after 1850.

See J. R. Hutchinson, The Press-Gang Afloat and Ashore (1914); J. F. Zimmerman, Impressment of American Seamen (1926, repr. 1966).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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