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Treasures from the Gilder Lehrman Collection
The United States Navy and
the African Squadron
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     In the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States and Britain repeatedly came into conflict over the British navy’s treatment of American ships and sailors. For many Americans, national independence meant nothing if it did not mean freedom from British harassment on the high seas. But during the early 1800s, as Britain’s navy grew in size and power, its violations of American maritime rights also increased. Even when American and British interests aligned—as they did after both the United States and Britain abolished the transatlantic slave trade in 1808—tensions between the two nations remained high. Even cooperation in stamping out the slave trade would be tinged with conflict.
     During Britain’s long wars with Napoleonic France, British naval officers occasionally boarded and searched American vessels for contraband or British deserters. This disregard for American neutrality contributed to the Anglo-American tensions that provoked the War of 1812. But the war did not resolve the issue in question: Did the British navy ever have the right to board and search American vessels on the high seas? That question remained contested during the 1820s and 1830s, par-