Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. I.: On Pressing. - An Essay on Naval Discipline
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAP. I.: On Pressing. - Thomas Hodgskin, An Essay on Naval Discipline 
An Essay on Naval Discipline, Shewing Part of its evil Effects on the Minds of the Officers, on the Minds of the Men, and on the Community; with an Amended System, by which Pressing may be immediately abolished, by Lieut. Thomas Hodgskin, R.N. (London: Printed for the Author, by C. Squire, Furnival’s-Inn-Court, sold by Sherwood, Neely & Jones, Paternoster-Row 1813).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Among the numerous political evils which, for a long time, have employed the attention of the most temperate and most enlightened advocates of reform, none stands so conspicuous, for its many bad consquences, as the present mode of manning our fleets. It has never been said that it is just—it has never been palliated or excused but on the score of inevitable necessity; but whence this necessity arises has never been enquired.
It is confessed, by its most willing sufferers, to be the foulest reproach that can be imputed to our country, and the vilest stigma that disgraces a constitution, the most perfect and glorious that ever existed.
Notwithstanding this universal acknowledgment, few efforts have been made to provide men for our ships by any other means, while the other political evils of our country have occasionally called forth all the energy, talents, and patriotism it possesses.
Admiral Patten’s work on the subject deserves attention and praise, but it does not extend to the root of the evil; for while he proposes an extended bounty and higher wages, he makes no amelioration in our present system of naval discipline; on the contrary, the admiral makes it an object of his praise. It appears to be thought by him, as well as all others, the ground work, the basis of all our naval successes. I believe from experience, that this discipline is so much an object of hatred, that few men who have once served in a man of war, ever voluntarily returned when released, except some vile profligate scoundrels who were dead to feeling, and driven by poverty. I should, therefore, apprehend all the admiral’s increased bounties must be totally inefficacious; that a voluntary registering, or a voluntary service could never take place on his scheme. The much additional expence that would be incurred by it is a great objection to a legislature and a people who, as the admiral says, desire to be defended without adequately rewarding their defenders.
I believe all are perfectly convinced of, and therefore it is needless to attempt to prove the hardships, cruelty, and injustice there is in forcing one set of men, who form a considerable portion of the community, unwillingly from their homes, and sending them to every part of the world, where they are exposed to every danger, to every sort of disease incidental to change of climate, and to death under every shape, for the purpose of defending the remainder from outrages similar to what they themselves are suffering, or, perhaps, to gratify the avarice of a few merchants, the chimerical ambition of some individuals, or the angry and hostile feelings which belong to all.
There is another point of view in which pressing has not been considered, which, as it forms the basis of naval discipline, it is necessary for me to examine. This point of view shews pressing possesses greater evils than any other, and, when added to its acknowledged and well-known absurdities, may induce reasoning, reflecting, and moral men to hasten its destruction. This effect will be best shewn by my relating two instances I have witnessed in the short period I have served in his majesty’s navy.
Religion and a good education teach a Christian even more powerfully than a heathen, that some of his most pleasing and most clearly defined duties are to honor his father and mother, and to provide for the support of his wife and family. Now, perhaps, neither philosophy nor religion ever devised a better mode of honoring one’s parents than Corporal Trim’s. To contribute effectually to their support in our country is, with much propriety, honoured as a virtue; to desert them in distress is universally stigmatized as a crime.
I knew a young man who was an excellent shipwright, and the pride of whose life was to support an aged mother. Higher wages were at that time given to carpenters of merchant ships than the exercise of his trade allowed him to get on shore, and far exceeded his pay in a man of war. That he might the more effectually contribute to his mother’s happiness he went to sea, and was there pressed. However strong might be his convictions of duty to serve his country, when every effort to procure his discharge had failed, strongly implanted affection for his mother (an affection mankind must honour as the source of so many virtues) led him to desert. He was, however, retaken, and only escaped being severely punished by a long fit of illness, brought on by the agitation of his mind and a long confinement in irons, preparatory to being tried by a court martial, which, it is probable, might have punished him with death, when he was doing a duty that he had been taught was to ensure him eternal happiness. What effect must this opposition of human to religious laws and instructions, founded as these last are, upon an intimate knowledge of, and supported by the feelings of our nature, have had upon this man’s mind, and upon every other’s who may be subject to both their influence? Can it possibly have any other than to make men think obedience to one, a crime, or give them a total contempt for the others, as the prejudices of old women, which they found mankind, particularly their rulers, whose example is so frequently held up for their imitation, and whose opinions frequently sway all their actions, totally despised, and which this individual’s obedience to had caused him inexpressible pain? I trust I need not observe, that the religious laws and instructions, whose effects are so destroyed, are the only foundations of morality, are the very things employed by every Christian community as the bases of obedience to all human laws; and this destruction of religious principles is the chief cause of the now existing bad character of the seamen. This man’s illness saved him from punishment; he wisely got over his fear of human laws, and obeyed one of the most pleasing and positive commands of his religion, by a second and successful desertion. Yet, as illness had procured him a sort of mercy for his first offence, he was universally stigmatised as a detestable and ungrateful scoundrel—but, with as much justice as a man might be called ungrateful who would prosecute a highway robber, when he had taken his money yet spared his life.
Another similar instance was a man who was pressed from being mate of a ship, and on whose exertions for an honourable maintenance a wife and four children depended. A Scotchman: this man had received a good education, and possessed all that well-known pride of independence so honourable to the lowest classes of that part of the community. It was a subject of deep regret to him, that his wife and family, accustomed to the comforts of life, should depend upon charity for their subsistence. To relieve them from it he deserted, a proceeding he well knew the laws denounced the severest penalties against; but they were not sufficient to deter him from the more rigid line of his duty. Aware of the immense importance of what has been called the narrow principle of self-interest, I must denounce that as a false love of country which begins from any other source than our own happiness, our families, and friends; I must denounce all exertions as absurd, and know, indeed, none such exist that have not for their immediate object our own pleasure, either now or hereafter. Therefore, this man could have no possible motive for serving in a man of war but fear, when he knew that his wife and family were starving, and that through their wretchedness he was completely miserable. Here was another perfect opposition of human laws to all the principles inculcated by religion, and the best kind of morality.
This man was also retaken, and certainly furnished to a captain an opportunity of displaying (contrary to the duty imposed upon him by his superiors) his own humanity and obedience to the laws of his God, by extending to this man a perfect forgiveness. Such an instance scarcely needs a comment; however, it is worthy remark, that the best of feelings and a knowledge of religion should so operate on this captain’s mind as to make him do away the only motive a pressed man can have to serve his country—fear of punishment.
Such results of pressing as these have not generally been known, or not considered; its effects in this way are comparatively nothing on the worthless and profane, it is the man of a little knowledge whose mind it unhinges; it is the man who knows the blessings of liberty, and therefore loves his country, that it teaches to hate it; it is the good citizen whose affections it destroys, and very often converts to a bad man. When it is considered that death is the punishment denounced by the laws against desertion, do not these instances warrant the conclusion that pressing is wrong; for it destroys the legitimate bases of morality, the sources of obedience and virtue. That it is absurd, and must corrupt the mind, for it sets in opposition two principles of duty that are both alike imperative on man, but to obey both impossible. The principles it sets in opposition are not the dogmas of a sect, they belong not particularly to church-men, dissenters, or catholics, but are the only things in which they all agree; they are the acknowledged supporters of every kind of social intercourse and social order. When to this is added the well-known anguish of being torn from home, and forced into a service justly deserving hatred, what temper of mind will a man be thought to possess—what zeal can he be expected to have for the thousand uninteresting employments he is, on going on board a man of war, immediately called upon to execute. Sullen, sulky, and resentful, he goes unwillingly to work. The lash of terror is employed to quicken his exertions, which again generates hatred, and, as the conviction cannot escape his superiors that he is a much injured man, a still greater degree of terror is employed to prevent hatred growing into vengeance; and from this has arisen that system of coercive laws, and customs, infinitely worse than laws, which, form what is called naval discipline, which again in their turn, as their existence is known to the lowest classes of the community, are the only possible reasons that can be assigned for the necessity of pressing. As these are dreadful evils, it becomes us distinctly to ascertain whence arises this necessity. At what period of our history did Britons forget the glorious example of their ancestors? When have they ever refused to perform all the moral duties that spring from the principle of self-defence? When have they thought it a crime, or when have they been cowardly enough to neglect to defend their country? My limited knowledge will not allow me to discover; but the existence of such a period in our history can alone have created the necessity of pressing; or it might have arisen at some period when the mass of the people possessing more knowledge than at present have refused some profligate sovereign or wicked minister to support them in an unjust war. Neither of these periods have ever been known. The mass of the people never possessed so much knowledge as at present; and never have our countrymen forgot the example of their ancestors; never have they been other than brave, and more ready for war than peace.
It is remarkably well known that the English people have always gone to war with alacrity, and seldom made peace with pleasure. I only know of one exception, and that was the Dutch war in the reign of Charles the Second. From whatever cause this necessity might have arisen, the well-known character of our countrymen assures us it no longer exists from any other than from naval discipline being totally opposed to every idea, we, as Britons, learn in early life; from its being in perfect opposition to that obedience every man is accustomed to pay to opinion.
Whether pressing is necessary or not is a question of feeling more than of reason or of knowledge, and it is one every man is capable of deciding. He who, laying his hand upon his heart, can think with sincerity, that he would suffer every one of its affections to be broken by the hand of ruffian violence without one effort to resist, may safely pronounce pressing to be necessary, and to him it should be immediately applied; but he who feels he would resist this ruffian violence till he had prevented every probability of injury, may agree with me, that pressing is totally unnecessary. Now there is not only a disposition in our countrymen to resist such violence, but there is such a disposition throughout human nature; and to suppose men will not defend their country, is so contradicted by the history of every part of the world, is so opposed by experience, that I scarce know with what arguments to combat it. As it is a question of feeling more than of reason, human learning will not decide it, and it therefore would be as rational to search for a solution of it in acts of parliament, as to go to them to find out why mankind love praise. We must go to something antecedent to acts of parliament—the human heart; and, as we shall find no reason for this necessity in the hearts of our people, we must look for it in the hearts of our rulers, not of this generation in particular, but in those prior. Are there not many of their actions which can be traced to no other cause but an unnecessary fear of future consequences; such, for instance, is the present needless opposition which they give to the free participation of all our rights by the catholics; such, for instance, was the establishment of the poor laws to compel people to be charitable, now so generally acknowledged as a great and growing evil; and there are many others of a similar nature. Talents have in our country received more praise than morality; they have frequently made a man a minister who has been destitute of every virtue; and such people feeling their own fears, have distrusted mankind as equally bad. The opinion that our people need to be forced to defend our country cannot be derived from any other cause. Agincourt, Cressy, and Poictiers, give no countenance to such an opinion; neither is it supported by Salamanca, Barrosa, nor the misarranged battle of Albuera. In vain will our naval history be sought into to support it, for it teems with gallant exploits that put cold calculation to the blush; it furnishes innumerable instances of the ardent courage of the men, surpassing all that our rulers expected of them.
Our people have never been passive under injuries; they have never submitted to violence with patience. It is even with difficulty they can be made to bear with pressing and coercion, though patience under them is encouraged, by a general opinion that they are greatly necessary to the welfare of the country; and our people might be safely trusted to this principle of resistance, inherent in our nature, to man our fleets. Not only does English history furnish proofs that our people would defend their country if permitted, but the history of all mankind. The Spaniards and Portuguese are, at this moment, defending their country, when the fears of their rulers disarmed, and then deserted them. Did not the Tyrolese, against every difficulty, when destitute of every support, and when basely deceived by their rulers, the house of Austria, manfully and honourably defend their country? To go to America we shall find the Mexicans also, though desired to desist by that authority they had been accustomed to revere, bravely defended their household Gods; and no nation has yet been discovered who have refused to do so visible a duty as this whenever their rulers have permitted them. Our country can be defended no where but at sea; make this known to the people, and there will exist no more necessity for pressing than there is for penal statutes to compel men to labour when they cannot live without it.
Besides forming an opinion from my historical knowledge of our countrymen, that they do not require to be pressed to fight from any other reason than the opposition of discipline to our feelings, and the unnecessary fears of our rulers, I infer it from knowing the vast authority of general opinion, and from seeing that the fears of our rulers displayed through the laws to which all are obedient, and which many believe to be too sacred to permit examination, possess completely the authority of general opinion. Our rulers have supposed us incapable of defending our country, and making public this opinion by laws, they have absolutely created a vice which before only existed in their own imagination. There is no way so ready to debase a people as their governors (in whom they are so early accustomed to place confidence) forming bad opinions of the whole, from one or a few solitary examples of atrocious crimes, and enacting statutes to prevent them. Our rulers, at some period or other, have formed an opinion that we were unwilling to defend our country, but it is they alone who have literally created this unwillingness, and now our people positively think they are incapable of voluntarily defending our country.
When there is so strong a propensity in mankind to fight for their homes, when every man’s indignation is even roused by the mention of violence, when this is taught youth as a virtue by their mothers, it begets a wish in many men to go to sea, and contribute to the defence, and share the praise of their countrymen; but when it is known that there is in existence so dreadful a thing as pressing, that this is sanctioned by an authority that men permit to guide all their actions, and when they feel that it is employed to produce a virtue that they already eminently possess, it occurs to them that there is something dreadful at sea which they know nothing about. Such an opinion is strengthened by vague reports of the cruelties of discipline, and, like every thing with which mankind are imperfectly ácquainted, imagination adds double horror to it. I will not encounter them, says one; I will not encounter them, says another; and so on through the whole community. In this manner the despicable opinions our rulers have entertained of us has partially begot a vice, which had its only beginning in their own fears, and now gives a colourable pretext to the necessity of pressing. Do away this despicable opinion, and the common passions of our nature, which our history shows our countrymen have always had in them, will do away every shadow of a necessity for pressing.
Men unaccustomed to reflect are not aware of the vast authority of general opinion, which I have before said the opinions of our rulers possess. Let me refer the reader for the proofs of this authority to any of the metaphysical writers of the day; but every man must know that the early life of all is wholly governed by its influence, as when we imitate the actions of the rest of mankind, and grow up like our fathers. The entire life of many never gets clear from its trammels. The longest period of reflection, and the most enlightened mind, frequently gives up its reason in compliance with this opinion without being convinced of its propriety. Now, as opinions guide the actions of men, whenever a general opinion pronounces a thing impossible, it becomes absolutely so. The general opinion in existence that we need being pressed has prevented our countrymen from attempting what they are so well capable of—voluntarily defending their country. If every man will apply to his own heart for information, and equally trust his neighbours, a general opinion can no longer exist that pressing is necessary.
The vast authority of opinion in promoting evil is not confined to pressing, but pervades every part of our country; its authority enforced by numerous penal statutes, and assisted by an opinion, yet much too prevalent amongst our people, that every man is prone to a particular vice is a conspicuous cause for the thieving and peculation which so commonly occur in our society. The legislature have added to it by the multiplied honours they have decreed to the possessors of wealth, making it the test of every virtue, making its possession or want the reason of admittance or exclusion to that highest honour a British subject courts,—a seat in our senate; and, while they have thus added to the already existing temptations to acquire wealth, they have destroyed more than half the power of resisting them by the authority of that general opinion that has persuaded men they were liable to commit these particular crimes. This vast authority of general opinion will teach us that too much care cannot be taken to prevent the enacting penal statutes, and it will teach us that mankind will universally become much better by being better though of. Though we cannot reach the perfection of the Deity, how much we may improve is yet unknown to every man; but, to attain any improvement, it is positively necessary that improvement should be supposed possible. Thousands have practised ardent and rigid virtue, and all are capable of doing it; thousands have voluntarily defended their country, and as many would as the country can need would our rulers but suppose us capable of doing it. Such an opinion is supported by an ardent love of fame in our people, which I shall elucidate in another chapter.