Prelude To War: Kent County in the early 19th century was no longer a primary route of travel nor a center of international trade as it had been during the Colonial period. Land had opened up west, and overland routes were utilized instead of the Bay crossing. Local farmers, who had long given up their reliance upon tobacco, continued with a diversified, grain based economy that had led to the county’s Colonial prosperity, but in the 1800s goods and produce were transported to Wilmington or shipped to Baltimore, by then the third largest and fastest growing city in the U.S. 

Joseph Scott’s 1807 travelogue said of Chestertown:

 It contains 140 houses, 41 of them  brick, several of them built in a style of elegance…the public buildings are all of brick.  No town on the Eastern Shore possesses so many local advantages … abundance of excellent water and a fertile, well cultivated surrounding country, but the proximity of Baltimore has monopolized the trade of Chestertown…In the town are retail stores, which supply the inhabitants of the adjacent parts with West India produce, and the various manufactures of Europe.

The Eastern Shore had begun to settle into a new era of relative isolation.  Nonetheless, local farmers and residents would have felt the impact of events leading up to the war.

American shipping and trade had been severely hindered by war between England and France.  Neither nation respected the rights of the U.S. as a neutral nation.  American attempts to counter foreign trade restrictions, such as Thomas Jefferson’s disastrous Embargo Act of 1807 which prohibited all foreign trade, proved ineffective at best.  Baltimore, in spite of the ingenuity and brashness of its many privateers, was negatively impacted, as were the farmers whose produce was to be shipped abroad, including those of Kent County.

illustration of British impressmentThe British practice of impressment was another motivation for war.  In need of able bodied seamen, the British forcibly stopped and searched American vessels, looking for suspected British citizens.  In 1807 the commander of the British warship Leopard demanded to board the U.S. frigate Chesapeake; when refused, they fired upon the vessel, killing several men, and seizing four as deserters (three of whom turned out to be American citizens).  America was outraged.

The prospect of war caused tensions between the two political parties.  The Federalists, the party of John Adams and, philosophically, of George Washington, tended to be represented in New England and among wealthy property owners, while the Republican party of Thomas Jefferson was strongest in the South, and often the party of farmers, merchants and the middle class.  The upper Eastern Shore and upper western shore were primarily Republican, while the lower shore and southern and Western Maryland remained Federalist.

Kent County was in a period of political transition.  Wealthy landowners no longer dominated local politics, and a middle class sought their place in government. Many Marylanders felt the same way: when William Smith, the founder of Washington College and then of St. Johns in Annapolis, proposed to the Maryland legislature that the two colleges receive state support as the University of Maryland. Republicans refused, declaring they would not support the education of the sons of the elite with taxpayers money.  

Political lines were not always so clearly drawn.  In 1797, when Federalist Michael Taney of Calvert County proposed that property requirements for voting be abolished, Republican Joseph Nicholson of Chestertown stated that it would be as foolish as allowing women and children to vote.  By 1810, property requirements for all elections and public offices were abolished in Maryland following a proposal by Federalist John Hanson Thomas of Frederick County.  However, the continued support for property requirements by the Federalist Party in general would help lead to their demise, even though their dire forecasts about going to war with England proved correct.

The Federalist Party opposed war with England, although anti-war sentiment among Maryland Federalists was not as strong as elsewhere.  Federalists were vocal in their support of England’s stand against Emperor Napoleon’s regime, which had conquered much of continental Europe.  They also declared that the U.S. was ill prepared for war because they had too small a navy, a poorly trained army, and insufficient financial means.  The Republican Party felt that militia on the ground and privateers at sea were sufficient to fight a war. 

The Republican War Hawks of the House of Representatives were strong advocates for war.  Young, brash, but intelligent and articulate, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and others represented the second generation of American statesmen, convinced of the need for the expansion of America and for national pride. Some came from the new frontier of Tenneseee, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, and were concerned with the British and Indian allegiances in the Great Lakes region.  A series of confrontations organized by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh was referred to as the “Anglo-Indian War” by newspapers, after it was reported the Indians were supplied with British weapons.

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