Embargo of 1807

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The Embargo of 1807 and the subsequent Nonintercourse Acts were American laws restricting American ships from engaging in foreign trade 1807 and 1812. They failed, and led to the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain.

Britain and France were engaged in a life-and-death struggle for control of Europe, and the small, remote U.S.A. became a pawn in their game. The Acts were diplomatic responses by presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison designed to protect American interests and avoid war. They failed, and helped cause the war. The Acts were bitterly opposed by New England shipping interests which suffered greatly from them.

After a short truce the European wars resumed and continued until the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. (He returned for 100 days in 1815 but that had no bearing on the U.S.) The war caused U.S. relations with both England and France to deteriorate rapidly. There was grave risk of war with one or the other. With England supreme on the sea, and France on the land, the war developed into a struggle of blockade and counterblockade. This commercial war peaked in 1806 and 1807. The British Royal Navy shut down most European harbors to American ships unless they first traded through British ports. France declared a paper blockade of Britain (which it lacked a navy to enforce) and seized American ships that obeyed British regulations.

The British system of impressment angered all Americans. The British warships stopped American merchant ships and looked at the papers of the crew. Anyone born in Britain, or even speaking with a British accent, was seized and forced into the Royal Navy despite his protests and actual American citizenship. 6,000 sailors were impressed. American anger peaked after June 22, 1807, when the British warship Leopard attacked the smaller American warship Chesapeake a few miles off the U.S. coast, and impressed four suspected deserters. Americans demanded war.

Jefferson said, no war, but he did order all British ships out of American waters. He was convinced that the United States had the power to coerce the European powers by economic methods rather than war. In December 1807, Jefferson asked Congress for an embargo which would prohibit all American ships from departing for a foreign port. Trading vessels were now required to post a bond of guarantee equal to the value of both the ship itself and its cargo, in order to insure compliance with the law.[1] Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin objected because of the administrative nightmare of trying to enforce such a profoundly unpopular policy. "As to the hope that it may...induce England to treat us better," wrote Gallatin to Jefferson shortly after the bill had become law, "I think is entirely groundless...government prohibitions do always more mischief then had been calculated; and it is not without hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do better than themselves"[2]

The Embargo quickly became law and ordered the end of all American foreign trade, to all countries. Foreign ships could still come to American ports but Congress added a nonimportation act which blocked entry to many British goods. Very stringent enforcement laws were passed to ensure that vessels engaged in the coastal trade would not secretly sail for foreign ports. In January 1808 Congress closed a loophole that coasting vessels, and fishing and whaling boats had not been required to post bonds guaranteeing that they would not sail for foreign ports.[3] War loomed, but Congress refused Jefferson's request to increase the army to 30,000 troops from 2,800.

Despite vigorous enforcement by the federal government they were only partially successful. American ships that were already at seas continued to trade abroad throughout the Embargo period (they did not come back to the U.S.), and smuggling flourished along the Canadian border.

The Embargo, which lasted from December 1807 to March 1809, for the most part effectively ended American overseas trade. All coastal areas suffered. In commercial New England and the Middle Atlantic states ships were uselessly tied up at the wharves, and sailors and wharf workers were unemployed. In the farming regions, especially in the South, the lucrative export market ended for tobacco, cotton, grain, fish, cattle and horses. The scarcity of European goods gave a stimulus for new American factories in the northeast. New Englanders protested bitterly that their prosperity was ruined by Jefferson's Embargo. The Federalist Party, which had been rapidly losing support, now found increased strength.

On the Canadian border with New York and Vermont, the embargo laws were openly flouted. An increasingly frustrated Jefferson was resolved to use all his police powers to enforce the embargo to the letter against Americans. In March 1808 Congress prohibited, for the first time, the export of all goods, either by land or by sea.[4] "The Enforcement Act," signed into law on 24 April 1808, was the last of the embargo acts. It decreed that port authorities were allowed to seize cargoes without a warrant, and to bring to trial any shipper or merchant who was thought to have merely contemplated violating the embargo.[5]

The Embargo hurt the United States more than Britain or France. The British expanded their trade with South America, assisted by the absence of American competition (which had been removed by the embargo).

Jefferson placed himself in a strange position with his Embargo policy. Though he had so frequently and eloquently argued for as little government intervention as possible, he now found himself assuming extraordinary powers in an attempt to enforce his policy. The presidential election of 1808, in which Republican James Madison defeated Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney showed that the Federalist Party was regaining strength, and helped to convince Jefferson and Madison that the Embargo would have to be ended.

Repeal 1809

Congress repealed the Act three days before Jefferson left office, replacing it with the Non-Intercourse Act on March 1, 1809, which lifted all embargoes except for those on Britain and France. It opened American trade with all countries except Britain, France, and their colonies. The president was given the power to suspend nonintercourse with either Britain or France should one of these countries remove her regulations against American commerce. The Nonintercourse Act proved no more effective than the Embargo, and it proved impossible to prevent American vessels from trading with the European belligerents once they had left American ports. The Non-Intercourse Act was replaced in 1810 with Macon's Bill Number 2, which ended all embargoes. Congress realized the failure of the "stick" (American economic pressure) to coerce the European powers. Trade with both Britain and France was now thrown open, but the United States offered a "carrot": If either power would remove her restrictions on American commerce, the U.S. would reapply nonintercourse against the power that had not so acted.

Napoleon quickly took advantage of this opportunity and tricked the Americans. He promised that his Berlin and Milan Decrees would be repealed, and Madison reinstituted nonintercourse against Britain in the fall of 1810. Though Napoleon did not fulfill his promise, strained Anglo-American relations prevented his being brought to task for his duplicity.

Too late, the British in June 1812 promised to repeal its Orders in Council, but the concession came too too late, for by the time the news reached America the United States had already declared war against Britain and the War of 1812 was underway.

Case studies

A case study of Rhode Island shows the embargo devastated shipping-related industries, wrecked existing markets, and increased opposition to the Jeffersonian Republican party. Smuggling was widely endorsed by the public, which viewed the embargo as a violation of their rights. Public outcry continued, helping the Federalists regain control of the state government in 1808-09. The case is a rare example of US national foreign policy altering local patterns of political allegiance.

Despite its unpopular nature, the Embargo Act did have some limited, unintended benefits, especially as it drove capital and labor into New England textile and other manufacturing industries, lessening America's reliance on the British.[6] In Vermont, the embargo was doomed to failure on the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River water route because of Vermont's dependence on a Canadian outlet for produce. At St. John, Lower Canada, £140,000 worth of goods smuggled by water were recorded there in 1808 - a 31% increase over 1807. Shipments of ashes (used to make soap) nearly doubled to £54,000, but lumber dropped 23% to £11,200. Manufactured goods, which had expanded to £50,000 since Jay's Treaty of 1795, fell over 20%, especially articles made near Tidewater. Newspapers and manuscripts recorded more lake activity than usual, despite the theoretical reduction in shipping that should accompany an embargo. The smuggling was not restricted to water routes, as herds were readily drove across the uncontrollable land border. Southbound commerce gained two-thirds overall, but furs dropped a third. Customs officials maintained a stance of vigorous enforcement throughout and Gallatin's Enforcement Act (1809) was a party issue. Many Vermonters preferred the embargo's exciting game of revenuers versus smugglers, bringing high profits, versus mundane, low-profit normal trade.[7]

The New England merchants who evaded the embargo were imaginative, daring, and versatile. Gordinier (2001) examines how the merchants of New London, Connecticut, organized and managed the cargoes purchased and sold, and the vessels used during the years before, during, and after the embargo. Trade routes and cargoes, both foreign and domestic, along with the vessel types, and the ways their ownership and management were organized show the merchants of southeastern Connecticut evinced versatility in the face of crisis.

Gordinier (2001) concludes the versatile merchants sought alternative strategies for their commerce, and to a lesser extent, for their navigation. They tried extra-legal activities, a reduction in the size of the foreign fleet, and the re-documentation of foreign trading vessels into domestic carriage. Most importantly, they sought new domestic trading partners, and took advantage of the political power of Jedidiah Huntington, the Custom Collector. Huntington was an influential member of the Connecticut leadership class (called "the Standing Order"); he allowed scores of embargoed vessels to depart for foreign ports under the guise of "special permission." Old modes of sharing vessel ownership in order to share the risk proved to be hard to modify. Instead established relationships continued through the embargo crisis, in spite of numerous bankruptcies.[8]

See also


  • Brown, Roger H. The Republic in Peril: 1812 (1964), stresses intense hostility between partisans online edition
  • Burt, Alfred L. The United States, Great Britain, and British North America from the Revolution to the Establishment of Peace after the War of 1812. (1940), detailed history by Canadian scholar; online
  • Daniels, G. W. "American Cotton Trade with Liverpool under the Embargo and Non-intercourse Acts." American Historical Review 1916 21(2): 276-287. Issn: 0002-8762 online at Jstor
  • Frankel, Jeffrey A. "The 1807-1809 Embargo Against Great Britain," The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Jun., 1982), pp. 291–308 online at JSTOR
  • Gallatin, Albert. The Writings of Albert Gallatin, ed. Henry Adams, (1879) online edition at Google
  • Gordinier, Glenn Stine. "Versatility in Crisis: The Merchants of the New London Customs District Respond to the Embargo of 1807-1809." PhD dissertation U. of Connecticut 2001. 333 pp. DAI 2001 62(2): 739-A. DA3004842
  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. "Jefferson, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Balance of Power." William and Mary Quarterly 1957 14(2): 196-217. ISSN 0043-5597 online in Jstor
  • Levy, Leonard W. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. (1963)
  • McDonald, Forrest. The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, (1976), by a leading conservative historian
  • Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: Second term, 1805-1809 vol 5; (1970), the standard biography
  • Mannix, Richard. "Gallatin, Jefferson, and the Embargo of 1808." Diplomatic History 1979 3(2): 151-172. ISSN 0145-2096
  • Muller, H. Nicholas. "Smuggling into Canada: How the Champlain Valley Defied Jefferson's Embargo." Vermont History 1970 38(1): 5-21. ISSN 0042-4161
  • Perkins, Bradford. Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805-1812. 1961. the standard diplomatic history
  • Sears; Louis Martin. Jefferson and the Embargo (1927), state by state analysis of impact online edition
  • Schachner, Nathan. Thomas Jefferson: A Biography (1957) 1074 pp. online edition
  • Smelser, Marshall. The Democratic Republic, 1801-1815 (1968) (ISBN 0-06-131406-4) survey of political and diplomatic history
  • Spivak, Burton; Jefferson's English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution. (1979)
  • Strum, Harvey. "Rhode Island and the Embargo of 1807." Rhode Island History 1994 52(2): 58-67. ISSN 0035-4619
  • Tucker, Robert W. and David C. Hendrickson. Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (1992) survey of foreign policy


  1. Malone, p. 461
  2. Gallatin to Jefferson, Dec. 1807, in Gallatin (1879) 2:368 online edition
  3. McDonald p. 147
  4. McDonald p 144
  5. Levy, (1973) p. 107.
  6. Strum (1994)
  7. Muller (1970)
  8. Gordinier (2001)