Front Page Titles (by Subject) CCCIX: THE RIGHT OF IMPRESSING SEAMEN REMARKS ON JUDGE FOSTER'S ARGUMENT IN FAVOR OF THE RIGHT. 1 - The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. IV Letters and Misc. Writings 1763-1768
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CCCIX: THE RIGHT OF IMPRESSING SEAMEN REMARKS ON JUDGE FOSTER’S ARGUMENT IN FAVOR OF THE RIGHT. 1 - Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. IV Letters and Misc. Writings 1763-1768 
The Works of Benjamin Franklin, including the Private as well as the Official and Scientific Correspondence, together with the Unmutilated and Correct Version of the Autobiography, compiled and edited by John Bigelow (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). The Federal Edition in 12 volumes. Vol. IV (Letters and Misc. Writings 1763-1768).
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THE RIGHT OF IMPRESSING SEAMEN
Page 157. “The only question at present is, whether mariners, persons who have freely chosen a seafaring life, persons whose education and employment have fitted them for the service, and inured them to it, whether such persons may not be legally pressed into the service of the crown, whenever the public safety requireth it; ne quid detrimenti respublica capiat.
“For my part, I think they may. I think the crown hath a right to command the service of these people whenever the public safety calleth for it. The same right that it hath to require the personal service of every man able to bear arms in case of a sudden invasion or formidable insurrection. The right in both cases is founded on one and the same principle, the necessity of the case in order to the preservation of the whole.”
The conclusion here, from the whole to a part, does not seem to be good logic. When the personal service of every man is called for, there the burthen is equal. Not so, when the service of part is called for, and others excused. If the alphabet should say, Let us all fight for the defence of the whole; that is equal, and may therefore be just. But if they should say, Let A, B, C, and D go and fight for us, while we stay at home and sleep in whole skins; that is not equal, and therefore cannot be just.
Page 158. “It would be time very ill spent to go about to prove that this nation can never be long in a state of safety, our coast defended, and our trade protected, without a naval force equal to all the emergencies that may happen. And how can we be secure of such a force? The keeping up the same naval force in time of peace, which will be absolutely necessary for our security in time of war, would be an absurd, a fruitless, and a ruinous expense. The only course then left, is for the crown to employ, upon emergent occasions, the mariners bred up in the merchant’s service.”
Employ—if you please. The word signifies engaging a man to work for me by offering him such wages as are sufficient to induce him to prefer my service. This is very different from compelling him to work for me on such terms as I think proper.
“And as for the mariner himself, he, when taken into the service of the crown, only changeth masters for a time; his service and employment continue the very same, with this advantage, that the dangers of the sea and enemy are not so great in the service of the crown as in that of the merchant.”
These are false facts. His service and employment are not the same. Under the merchant, he goes in an unarmed vessel not obliged to fight, but only to transport merchandise. In the king’s service, he is obliged to fight, and to hazard all the dangers of battle. Sickness on board the king’s ships is also more common and more mortal. The merchant’s service too he can quit at the end of a voyage, not the king’s. Also the merchant’s wages are much higher.
“I am very sensible of the hardship the sailor suffereth from an impress in some particular cases, especially if pressed homeward-bound after a long voyage. But the merchants who hear me know that an impress on outward-bound vessels would be attended with much greater inconveniences to the trade of the kingdom; and yet that too is sometimes necessary.”
Here are two things put in comparison that are not comparable, viz.: injury to seamen and inconvenience to trade. Inconvenience to the whole trade of a nation will not justify injustice to a single seaman. If the trade would suffer without his service, it is able and ought to be willing to offer him such wages as may induce him to afford his services voluntarily.
“But where two evils present, a wise administration, if there be room for an option, will choose the least.”
The least evil, in case seamen are wanted, is to give them such wages as will induce them to enlist voluntarily. Let this evil be divided among the whole nation, by an equal tax to pay such wages.
Page 159. “War itself is a great evil, but it is chosen to avoid a greater. The practice of pressing is one of the mischiefs war bringeth with it. But it is a maxim in law, and good policy too, that private mischiefs must be borne with patience for preventing a national calamity.”
Where is this maxim in law and good policy to be found? And how came that to be a maxim, which is not consistent with common sense? If the maxim had been, that private mischiefs which prevent a national calamity ought to be generously compensated by that nation, one might have understood it. But that such private mischiefs are only to be borne with patience is absurd.
“And as no greater calamity can befall us than to be weak and defenceless at sea in a time of war, so I do not know that the wisdom of the nation hath hitherto found out any method of manning our navy less inconvenient than pressing, and, at the same time, equally sure and effectual.”
Less inconvenient to whom? To the rich, indeed, who ought to be taxed. No mischief more inconvenient to poor seamen could possibly be contrived.
“The expedient of a voluntary register, which was attempted in King William’s time, had no effect. And some late schemes I have seen, appear to me more inconvenient to the mariner, and more inconsistent with the principles of liberty, than the practice of pressing; and, what is still worse, they are in my opinion totally impracticable.”
Twenty ineffectual or inconvenient schemes will not justify one that is unjust.
“The crown’s right of impressing seaman is grounded upon common law.”
If impressing seamen is of right by common law in Britain, slavery is then of right by common law there; there being no slavery worse than that sailors are subjected to.
“The result of evident necessity.”
Pressing not so, if the end might be answered by giving higher wages.
Page 160. “There are many precedents of writs for pressing. Some are for pressing ships; others for pressing mariners; and others for pressing ships and mariners. This general view will be sufficient to let us into the nature of these precedents. And though the affair of pressing ships is not now before me, yet I could not well avoid mentioning it, because many of the precedents I have met with and must cite, go as well to that, as to the business of pressing mariners. And, taken together, they serve to show the power the crown hath constantly exercised over the whole naval force of the kingdom, as well shipping as mariners, whenever the public service required it. This however must be observed, that no man served the crown in either case at his own expense. Masters and mariners received full wages, and owners were constantly paid a full freight.”
Full wages. Probably the same they received in the merchant’s service. Full wages to a seaman in time of war, are wages he has in the merchant’s service in war time. But half such wages is not given in the king’s ship to impressed seamen.
Page 173. “Do not these things incontestably presuppose the expediency, the necessity, and the legality of an impress in general? If they do not, one must entertain an opinion of the legislature acting and speaking in this manner, which it will not be decent for me to mention in this place.”
I will risk that indecency, and mention it. They were not honest men; they acted unjustly by the seamen (who have no vote in elections, or being abroad cannot use them if they have them), to save their own purses and those of their constituents. Former Parliaments acted the same injustice towards the laboring people, who had not forty shillings a year in lands; after depriving them wickedly of their right to vote in elections, they limited their wages, and compelled them to work at such limited rates, on penalty of being sent to houses of correction. Sec. 8, H. vi., Chaps. 7 and 8.
Page 174. “I readily admit that an impress is a restraint upon the natural liberty of those who are liable to it. But it must likewise be admitted, on the other hand, that every restraint upon natural liberty is not eo nomine illegal, or at all inconsistent with the principles of civil liberty. And if the restraint, be it to what degree soever, appeareth to be necessary to the good and welfare of the whole, and to be warranted by statute law, as well as immemorial usage, it cannot be complained of otherwise than as a private mischief; which, as I said at the beginning, must under all governments whatsoever be submitted to for avoiding a public inconvenience.”
I do not see the propriety of this must. The private mischief is the loss of liberty and the hazard of life, with only half wages, to a great number of honest men. The public inconvenience is merely a higher rate of seamen’s wages. He who thinks such private injustice must be done to avoid public inconvenience, may understand law, but seems imperfect in his knowledge of equity. Let us apply this author’s doctrine to his own case. It is for the public service that courts should be had and judges appointed to administer the laws. The judges should be bred to the law and skilled in it, but their great salaries are a public inconvenience. To remove the inconvenience, let press-warrants issue to arrest and apprehend the best lawyers, and compel them to serve as judges for half the money they would have made at the bar. Then tell them that, though this is to them a private mischief, it must be submitted to for avoiding a public inconvenience. Would the learned judge approve such use of his doctrine?
When the author speaks of impressing, page 158, he diminishes the horror of the practice as much as possible, by presenting to the mind one sailor only suffering a hardship as he tenderly calls it, in some particular cases only; and he places against this private mischief the inconvenience to the trade of the kingdom. But if, as I suppose is often the case, the sailor who is pressed and obliged to serve for the defence of this trade at the rate of 25s. a month, could have £3 15s. in the merchant’s service, you take from him 50s. a month; and if you have 100,000 in your service, you rob that honest part of society and their poor families of £250,000 per month, or three millions a year, and at the same time oblige them to hazard their lives in fighting for the defence of your trade; to the defence of which all ought indeed to contribute (and sailors among the rest) in proportion to their profits by it; but this three millions is more than their share, if they did not pay with their persons; and, when you force that, methinks you should excuse the other.
But it may be said, to give the king’s seamen merchant’s wages would cost the nation too much, and call for more taxes. The question then will amount to this: whether it be just in a community that the richer part should compel the poorer to fight for them and their properties, for such wages as they think fit to allow, and punish them if they refuse? Our author tells us it is legal. I have not law enough to dispute his authority, but I cannot persuade myself it is equitable. I will however own for the present, that pressing may be lawful when necessary; but then I contend that it may be used so as to produce the same good effect, the public security, without doing so much horrible injustice as attends the impressing common seamen. In order to be better understood, I would premise two things. First, that voluntary seamen might be had for the service, if they were sufficiently paid. The proof of this is, that to serve in the same ships, and incur the same dangers, you have no occasion to impress captains, lieutenants, second lieutenants, midshipmen, pursers, nor any other officers. Why, but that the profit of their places, or the emoluments expected, are sufficient inducements? The business then is by impressing to find money sufficient to make the sailors all volunteers, as well as their officers; and this without any fresh burthen upon trade. The second of my premises is, that 25s. a month, with his share of the salt beef, pork, and pease-pudding, being found sufficient for the subsistence of a hard-working seaman, it will certainly be so for a sedentary scholar or gentleman. I would then propose to form a treasury, out of which encouragement to seamen should be paid. To fill this treasury I would impress a number of civil officers who at present have great salaries, oblige them to serve in their respective offices for 25s. per month, with their share of the mess provisions, and throw the rest of their salaries into the seaman’s treasury. If such a press-warrant was given me to execute, the first person I would press should be a recorder of Bristol, or a Mr. Justice Foster, because I might have need of his edifying example, to show how such impressing ought to be borne with; for he would certainly find that, though to be reduced to 25s. per month might be a private mischief, yet that, agreeably to his maxim of law and good policy, it ought to be borne with patience for preventing a national calamity. Then I would press the rest of the judges; and, opening the Red Book, I would press every civil officer of government from £50 a year up to £50,000, which would throw an immense sum into our treasury; and these gentlemen could not well complain, since they would receive their 25s. a month and their rations, and that too without being obliged to fight. Lastly, I think I would impress the king, and confiscate his salary; but, from an ancient prejudice I have in favor of that title, I would allow him the gentleman merchant’s pay. I could not go farther in his favor; for, to say the truth, I am not quite satisfied of the necessity or utility of that office in Great Britain, as I see many flourishing states in the world governed well and happy without it.
Page 177. “For I freely declare that ancient precedents alone, unless supported by modern practice, weigh very little with me in questions of this nature.”
The modern practice, supported by ancient precedents, weigh as little with me. Both the one and the other only show that the constitution is yet imperfect, since in so general a case it doth not secure liberty, but destroys it; and the parliaments are unjust, conniving at oppression of the poor, where the rich are to be gainers or savers by such oppression.
Page 179. “I make no apology for the length of my argument, because I hope the importance of the question will be thought a sufficient excuse for me in this respect.”
The author could not well have made his argument shorter. It required a long discourse to throw dust in the eyes of common sense, confound all our ideas of right and wrong, make black seem white, and the worse appear the better opinion.
[1 ]These remarks were written in pencil on the margin of Judge Foster’s Report, in which was contained his argument respecting the impressment of seamen. The references are to the edition of 1762.