Paul Devine grew up in a small town in Connecticut, graduated from the local high school and the state university, and then served as a lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. He went to graduate school on the G.I. Bill and taught college English for a few years before beginning a career in financial services in Philadelphia. He talked recently with GPM Communications about the genesis of his historical novel Impressed!
The town I grew up in played a small role in the Revolutionary War. My high school was named in honor of a local native who had signed the Declaration of Independence; there was a house on North Main Street in which George Washington had slept overnight en route from Boston to New York; an historical marker out by the reservoir showed where French troops under Rochambeau had camped during their march to Yorktown to clinch the victory that brought the war to an end.
While every adult and child in the town was aware of its Revolutionary heritage, I cannot remember from boyhood any mention of the War of 1812. My grandmother bought me as a present on my twelfth birthday an American Heritage book about naval heroes. That volume included accounts of Captain Hull of Constitution defeating the British frigate Guerriere, of Stephen Decatur in U.S.S. United States capturing H.M.S. Macedonian, and of Commodore Bainbridge defeating H.M.S. Java off the Brasilian coast, all presented in a boys’-books manner as straightforward stories of heroism (which of course they were) and also as episodes in a clear-cut struggle of right against wrong.
As an adult, however, I realized that the War of 1812 was, like most things, more complicated than it had seemed in boyhood. The war and the events leading up to it included a complex web of interests. Matters of right and wrong were tangled and open to dispute. Impressed! looks at the lives of an ordinary American couple who become caught up in world events and have to deal with the potentially mortal consequences. Impressed!‘s hero Edwin Lawrence is a Boston merchant en route to Portugal. The ship aboard which he and his wife are traveling is stopped and boarded by a British frigate. Edwin is taken by force and “impressed” or forced to serve as an ordinary sailor in the Royal Navy. His wife Prudence, who has seen him taken hostage, does whatever she can to effect his liberation, first in Lisbon, then in Boston, and at last in Washington.
While the motives for going to war encapsulated in the slogan “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!” were noble, many in the War Hawk faction in Congress ignobly saw war as an opportunity to conquer Canada. The Free Trade that the United States went to war to protect, moreover, was based in large part of the products of slave labor. The British, on the other hand, were engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Napoleonic France and its allies, and viewed the conflict with the United States as an irritating distraction in what they saw as a world-wide struggle between constitutional government and radical dictatorship. They saw American “Free Trade” as providing sustenance to their enemies, a thin veil for war profiteering. The British had made the international slave trade illegal and were enforcing that prohibition single-handedly. But while the British had abolished the slave trade, they had not abolished slavery itself in their colonies, and a significant part of their trade, particularly in the Caribbean, involved the products of slave labor.
Impressed!, however, is not a work of history or ethics but a novel with a fast-moving plot and vibrant characters. The book is not “talky’”: while the characters in the book intelligently discuss public events and examine decisions that will lead to war or peace, their concerns are not merely theoretical. Rather, on a day-by-day basis they deal directly with the harsh consequences of international events on private lives.
The other impressed sailors that Edwin meets, both American and British, are acutely aware of the injustice of their situation. Some are constantly scheming to escape while others have largely accepted their lot. But all of them are vulnerable to disease, accidental injury, and death or mutilation in battle. Regardless of how they feel about the struggle against Napoleon, the morality of slavery, or the injustice of the impress system, they are confronted each day with the consequences of those issues in their own lives and the lives of their shipmates.
Prudence Lawrence deals with the desperation of her situation —her husband taken away at gunpoint by a foreign power—by trying every possible means of effecting his release. She talks to diplomats in Lisbon, to Boston politicians and businessmen, to the local newspapers, and to her Congressman, and then travels to Washington to see if she can influence officials in the federal government to more vigorously pursue the return of impressed Americans. When I wrote about Prudence, I had in the back of my mind the unceasing efforts of Peggy Say, the sister of Terry Anderson, the American journalist held hostage in Beirut for seven years in the 1980′s; she worked constantly, in one-on-one contacts and media appearances, to pressure the government to work toward her brother’s release.
The Impressment Crisis of 1806-1812 was in many ways the first major hostage crisis an American government would face. In the 1980′s the issue posed by the Beirut hostage crisis for the Reagan Administration was to find the most effective way a superpower could bring about the release of hostages, of choosing which political, economic, or military tools could be applied most effectively. Prudence Lawrence, however, finds that there is little that the Madison administration realistically can do. In 1812 the United States was not the dominant military power in the world but barely able to defend itself. Those who opposed the declaration of war presented very good arguments that war would utterly destroy the national economy, indeed could result in the effective loss of independence, reversing the results of Revolutionary War. After Congress voted by a slim margin to declare war, there were riots in major cities. By late 1814, representatives of the New England states, enraged by the damage the war had done to that region’s economy, met in Hartford to consider secession and negotiation of a separate peace.
While the United States is now the world’s sole superpower, the emergence of asymmetrical warfare means that Americans have to worry about both the national and individual impact of state-sponsored terrorism. What if you were an ordinary American on a business trip, suddenly taken at gunpoint and forced to serve in a foreign navy, to risk your life fighting your captors’ enemies, and ultimately compelled to point a weapon at your own countrymen? What if your husband were taken hostage right in front of you, forced to face unknown dangers, and you found that your government could not bring about his release? While the particulars of the circumstances in 1812 were different, the ethical and emotional experiences of hostages and spouses, and their fellow-citizens’ consideration of issues of war and peace, are still with us today.