Jack Tar in the Revolution
by Thomas McCord
While it was Jack Tar's unemployment that spurred his pre-Revolutionary activities, it was American's turn towards Revolution which put Jack back into the workplace. Maritime trade continued to decline during the years immediately preceding the Revolution, but a new job pool was created in the rise of colonial navies. On October 30, 1775, congress formed a naval committee for the defense of the colonies, creating the United States Navy. Working for the navy was risky business. The British did not recognize American sailors as prisoners of war, refused to trade them for British prisoners of war and instead hung them as traitors until 1780.
However, the events leading up to the Revolution made it clear where Jack Tar's loyalties would lie. When the Revolution did finally begin, New York's seamen remained decisively American throughout the war. The British Navy had a very difficult time recruiting in New York. They were wise in their methods of recruitment, turning to innkeepers frequented by seamen for help, but the anti-British sentiment of seamen in New York was too strong a force to overcome. The British were once again forced to resort to their time honored tradition of impressment. If Jack Tar had been unreliable when pressed into service against foreign countries, they were even more so when it came to fighting their fellow patriots.
The new born United States Navy had its own difficulties in recruiting New York seamen, but this was due to competition with the more profitable profession as an American privateer rather than the Royal Navy. The United States Navy may have faced competition from their privateer brethren, but the continual conflict between England and Jack Tar dating back almost a century had assured Jack Tar's colonial patriotism.
Jack Tar's Motivations
Undoubtedly Jack Tar had played an integral role in the events leading up to the Revolution, but how ought his involvement be characterized? His economic motivations are clear: restrictions placed on trade had clear political meaning and a direct impact Jack's ability to find employment. His personal grudge against the British is also seen clearly. Both impressment and competition for employment from British soldiers left a sour taste in Jack's mouth, generating a predisposition for anti-British sentiment. But can Jack Tar be characterized as having more noble motivations as well? Was he merely concerned with his own lot, merely reacting to the things which threatened him or did he truly seek justice and liberty for himself and his fellow colonists?
The behavior of the seamen in protest to the Stamp Act, though certainly boisterous, showed some degree of directed political motivation. Although it is suspected that lawyers may have instigated the stamp riot on November 1, 1765, any leadership that had existed had lost its control of the mob by the time Colden's effigy was hanged in the Fields. Had Jack Tar simply desired violence and possibly the chance for some petty theft, this loss of control would have proven disastrous. And yet, neighboring storefronts and residences remained entirely unharmed. Instead the mob, of its own volition, marched through the city in a directed manner to the residence of a man they considered responsible for the act they were protesting. Despite the inherently intimidating nature of Jack Tar and the Stamp Act mobs, citizens of New York quickly learned that they need not fear violence as long as they were not associated with the despised stamps.
Although there are clear reactionary motivations behind Jack Tar's actions, such a description does not fully account for the directed political actions which Jack often took. British historians Edward Palmer Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm have both characterized Jack Tar's involvement prior to the Revolution as "pre-political".In other words Jack Tar's pre-revolutionary actions were not wholly political, but neither were they wholly reactionary. Impressment and the Stamp Act had forced Jack to defend his personal liberties, but through the continual connection with between the economic issues of the port and the political issues facing the colonies as a whole; a political consciousness had inevitably begun to develop in Jack.
Lemisch, Jesse. "Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America." The William and Mary Quarterly, no. 25 (1968): 371-407.
Lemisch, Jesse. Jack Tar vs. John Bull; the role of New York's seamen in precipitating the Revolution. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1997.
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