Three British warships parked in U.S. territorial waters around Sandy Hook, New Jersey
outside New York. They searched every vessel entering the harbor for what they determined to be contraband and illegal commerce. The HMS Leander, captained by Henry Whitby, attempted to stop an American vessel. They fired a warning shot, trying to get the ship to stop so they could board it. The cannonball struck and killed seaman John Pierce. The incident was called murder and there was rioting in New York where the goods destined for the British ship were given to the poor instead.
President Thomas Jefferson, due to the lack of a strong U.S. navy, made a proclamation calling for the arrest of Henry Whitby and the immediate withdrawal of the warships from U.S. waters. Whitby was able to evade an American trial and he was acquitted by a British court-martial.
John Pierce was given a huge public funeral and both Republicans and Federalists publicly condemned what had happened. The press took the story and soon every paper in the nation reported the incident as an “atrocious murder” and Pierce was made an object of songs and toasts on the Fourth of July. He became a national hero and a rallying point for the United States against Britain. He was later mentioned in a long poem written by Philip Freneau for Thomas Jefferson’s retirement party.
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“Thomas Jefferson: Proclamation—Ordering The Arrest Of British Citizens Henry Whitley, John Nairn, And Slingsby Simpson For The Murder Of John Pierce”. 2018. Accessed June 12 2018.