The year was 1807 and Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars. By this time Napoleon had solidified his hold on Western Europe and victories to the east, particularly at Friedland, would lead to the Peace of Tilsit between Russia, Prussia, and France.Â
Late in 1806, Napoleon had declared that no French and allied ports should allow trade with its enemy, Great Britain. Denmark was at the time neutral in the conflict, but Britain feared that it would fall to Napoleon and with it, the Danish fleet. Britain demanded custody of the fleet and upon refusal, in early September, began the bombardment of Copenhagen. After four days of bombing, Denmark surrendered its fleet of seventeen ships of the line, seventeen frigates, sixteen smaller vessels, and twenty-six gunboats to Britain. Denmark sided with France for the remainder of the war.
In March, the U.S. Congress passed “An Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eight.” Britain followed shortly after with the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which prohibited British ships from engaging in slave trade and imposed a fine of Â£100 per slave.Â
There was tension between Britain and the United States and that tension brought the countries closer to war when the H.M.S. Leopard opened fire on the U.S.S. Chesapeake to forcibly capture four alleged British deserters. Only one of the captured men was proven to be a deserter and the attack killed three men and wounded eighteen more. In response, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering British ships out of U.S. territorial waters.
With Britain continuing to impress U.S. sailors into service in the Royal Navy, Jefferson was pushed to further action. (In early 1808 James Madison reported the number of impressed seamen as 4,028.) In December, Congress passed the Embargo Act which prohibited all trade outside U.S. ports. While it manages to temporarily keep the country out of war, it had little impact on its desired targets and overall did more harm to U.S. merchants.