Embargo Act of 1807

Embargo Act of 1807
Origins of
the War of 1812
ChesapeakeLeopard Affair
Orders in Council (1807)
Embargo Act of 1807
Non-Intercourse Act (1809)
Macon's Bill Number 2
Tecumseh's War
Henry letters
War Hawks
Rule of 1756
Monroe–Pinkney Treaty
Little Belt Affair

The Embargo Act of 1807 and the subsequent Nonintercourse Acts were American laws restricting American ships from engaging in foreign trade between the years of 1807 and 1812. 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 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. became a pawn in their game. The U.S. sought to remain neutral and trade with both sides, but neither belligerent wanted the other to have the American supplies. The American goal was to use economic coercion to avoid war, punish Britain, and force it to respect American rights.

An act later passed called the Nonintercourse Act was opposed by New England because it stopped all American trade with Great Britain.

Initially, these acts sought to punish Britain for its violation of American rights on the high seas. The chief complaint was the impressment or seizure by force of 6,000 sailors off American ships. These sailors claimed to be American citizens; if they had been born in the British Empire, the Royal Navy considered them still British, seized them and put them in their navy.

The later Embargo Acts, particularly those of 1807-1808 period, were passed in an attempt to stop Americans from defying the embargo by sales to Britain or France. The embargo caused enormous protest, especially from New England, orchestrated by the Federalist Party. They were repealed as Jefferson left office in early 1809. Grievances against Britain continued, however, leading to the American declaration of war against Britain in 1812.



After a short truce in 1802–1803 the European wars resumed and continued until the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.[1] The war caused American relations with both Britain and France to deteriorate rapidly. There was grave risk of war with one or the other. With Britain 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. Britain's 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 Royal Navy needed large numbers of sailors, and saw the U.S. merchant fleet as a haven for British sailors.[2]

The British system of impressment humiliated and dishonored the U.S. because it was unable to protect its ships and sailors.[3] This British practice of taking British deserters, and often Americans, from American ships and forcing them into the Royal Navy increased greatly after 1803, and caused bitter anger in the United States. The anger reached a peak after June 22, 1807, when the British ship Leopard attacked the American Chesapeake off the U.S. coast, and removed four suspected deserters. This grave incident was perceived by Americans as a profound insult to American honor; combined with the increased commercial restrictions, it produced a demand for war in the United States in the summer of 1807[4]

Jefferson did not want war, and was convinced that the United States had the power to coerce the European powers by economic methods rather than war.[5] Accordingly, in December 1807, Jefferson recommended to Congress an embargo which would prohibit all American ships from departing for a foreign port. This measure, which became law on December 22, attempted to end American foreign trade. Indeed, Congress had already, a few days before, put into effect a nonimportation act, originally passed in April 1806, which refused entry to many British goods. Enforcing measures put into effect to ensure that vessels engaged in the coastal trade would not sail for foreign ports were only partially successful. Some American vessels traded abroad throughout the Embargo, and smuggling flourished along the Canadian border.

Initial legislation

The Act:[6]

  • laid an embargo on all ships and vessels under U.S. jurisdiction,
  • prevented all ships and vessels from obtaining clearance to undertake in voyages to foreign ports or places,
  • allowed the President of the United States to make exceptions for vessels under his immediate direction,
  • authorized the President to enforce these provisions via instructions to revenue officers and the Navy,
  • was not constructed to prevent the departure of any foreign ship or vessel, with or without cargo on-board,
  • required a bond or surety from merchant ships on a voyage between U.S. ports, and
  • exempted warships from the embargo provisions.

This shipping embargo was a cumulative addition to the Nonimportation Act of 1806 (2 Stat. 379), this earlier act being a "Prohibition of the Importation of certain Goods and Merchandise from the Kingdom of Great Britain"; the prohibited imported goods being defined where their chief value which consists of leather, silk, hemp or flax, tin or brass, wool, glass; in addition paper goods, nails, hats, clothing, and beer.[7]

The Embargo Act of 1807 is codified at 2 Stat. 451 and formally titled "An Embargo laid on Ships and Vessels in the Ports and Harbours of the United States". The bill was drafted at the request of President Thomas Jefferson and subsequently passed by the Tenth U.S. Congress, on December 22, 1807, during Session 1; Chapter 5. Congress initially acted to enforce a bill prohibiting imports, but supplements to the bill eventually banned exports as well.

Impact on U.S.

The Embargo, which lasted from December 1807 to March 1809 effectively throttled American overseas trade. All areas of the United States suffered. In commercial New England and the Middle Atlantic states, ships rotted at the wharves, and in the agricultural areas, particularly in the South, farmers and planters could not sell their crops on the international market. For New England, and especially for the Middle Atlantic states, there was some consolation, for the scarcity of European goods meant that a definite stimulus was given to the development of American industry.

The embargo was a financial disaster for the Americans because the British were still able to export goods to America: initial loopholes overlooked smuggling by coastal vessels from Canada, whaling ships and privateers from overseas; and widespread disregard of the law meant enforcement was difficult.[8]

Case studies

A case study of Rhode Island shows the embargo devastated shipping-related industries, wrecked existing markets, and caused an increase in opposition to the 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.[9] 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 driven 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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

Enforcement efforts

Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin was against the entire embargo, foreseeing correctly the impossibility of enforcing the policy and the negative public reaction. "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 than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than themselves."[13]

Since the bill hindered U.S. ships from leaving American ports bound for foreign trade; it had the side-effect of hindering American exploration.

First supplementary act

Just weeks later, on January 8, 1808, legislation again passed the Tenth U.S. Congress, Session 1; Chapter 8: "An Act supplementary..." to the Embargo Act (2 Stat. 453). As historian Forrest McDonald wrote, "A loophole had been discovered" in the initial enactment, "namely that coasting vessels, and fishing and whaling boats" had been exempt from the embargo, and they had been circumventing it, primarily via Canada. This supplementary act extended the bonding provision (i.e. Section 2 of the initial Embargo Act) to those of purely domestic trades:[14]

  • Sections 1 and 2 of the supplementary act required bonding to coasting, fishing and whaling ships and vessels. Even river boats had to post bond.
  • Section 3 made violations of either the initial or supplementary act an offense; failure of the shipowner to comply would result in forfeiture of the ship and its cargo, or a fine of double that value, and denial of credit for use in custom duties; a captain failing to comply would be fined between one and twenty thousand dollars, and would forfeit the ability to swear an oath before any customs officer.
  • Section 4 removed the warship exemption from applying to privateers or vessels with a letter of marque.
  • Section 5 established a fine for foreign ships loading merchandise for export, and allowed for its seizure.

Meanwhile, Jefferson requested authorization from Congress to raise 30,000 troops from the current standing army of 2,800. Congress refused. With their harbors for the most part unusable in the winter anyway, New England and the north ports of the mid-Atlantic states had paid little notice to the previous embargo acts. That was to change with the spring thaw, and the passing of yet another embargo act.[13]:147

With the coming of the spring, the effect of the previous acts were immediately felt throughout the coastal states, especially in New England. An economic downturn turned into a depression and caused increasing unemployment. Protests occurred up and down the eastern coast. Most merchants and shippers simply ignored the laws. On the Canadian border, especially in upstate New York and Vermont, the embargo laws were openly flouted. Federal officials believed parts of Maine, such as Passamaquoddy Bay on the border with British-held New Brunswick, were in open rebellion. By March, an increasingly frustrated Jefferson was resolved to enforce the embargo to the letter.[citation needed]

Other supplements to the Act

On March 12, 1808, Congress passed and Jefferson signed into law yet another supplement to the Embargo Act. This supplement[citation needed] prohibited, for the first time, all exports of any goods, whether by land or by sea. Violators were subject to a fine of USD$10,000, plus forfeiture of goods, per offense. It granted the President broad discretionary authority to enforce, deny, or grant exceptions to the embargo.[13] Port authorities were authorized to seize cargoes without a warrant and to try any shipper or merchant who was thought to have merely contemplated violating the embargo.

Despite the added penalties, citizens and shippers openly ignored the embargo. Protests continued to grow; and so it was that the Jefferson administration requested and Congress rendered yet another embargo act.

Consequences of the Embargo Act

A political cartoon showing merchants dodging the "Ograbme", which is 'Embargo' spelled backwards. The embargo was also ridiculed in the New England press as Dambargo, Mob-Rage, or Go-bar-'em.

The Embargo was in fact hurting the United States as much as Britain or France. Britain, expecting to suffer most from the American regulations, built up a new South American market for its exports, and the British shipowners were pleased that American competition had been removed by the action of the U.S. government.

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 James Madison defeated Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, showed that the Federalists were regaining strength, and helped to convince Jefferson and Madison that the Embargo would have to be removed.[15]

Shortly before leaving office, in March 1809, Jefferson signed the repeal of the failed Embargo. In its place the Nonintercourse Act, was enacted, on March 1, which opened American trade with all countries except Britain , France, and their possessions. Madison 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.

Repealing the legislation

On April 25, 1808, Congress passed the Non-Intercourse Act, a law that enabled the President, once the wars of Europe ended, to declare the country sufficiently safe and to allow foreign trade with certain nations.

In 1810 Washington was ready to try yet another tactic of peaceful coercion, in the desperate measure known as Macon's Bill Number 2. This bill became law on May 1, 1810, and replaced the Nonintercourse Act. It was an acknowledgment of the failure of economic pressure to coerce the European powers. Trade with both Britain and France was now thrown open, and the United States attempted to bargain with the two belligerents. If either power would remove her restrictions on American commerce, the United States would reapply nonintercourse against the power that had not so acted. Napoleon quickly took advantage of this opportunity. 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.

The attempt of Jefferson and Madison to resist aggression by peaceful means gained a belated success in June 1812 when Britain finally promised to repeal her Orders in Council. The British concession was too late, for by the time the news reached America the United States had already declared the War of 1812 against Britain.

The entire series of events was ridiculed in the press as Dambargo, Mob-Rage, Go-bar-'em or O-grab-me ('Embargo' spelled backward); there was a cartoon ridiculing the Act as a snapping turtle, named "O' grab me", grabbing at American shipping.

Limited benefits

Despite its unpopular nature, the Embargo Act did have some limited, unintended benefits, especially as entrepreneurs and workers responded by bringing in fresh capital and labor into New England textile and other manufacturing industries, lessening America's reliance on the British merchants.[16]


  1. ^ He returned for 100 days in 1815 but that had no bearing on the U.S.
  2. ^ Brian DeToy, "The Impressment of American Seamen during the Napoleonic Wars," Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 1750-1850: Selected Papers, 1998 (1988) pp 492-501
  3. ^ Paul A. Gilje, "'Free Trade and Sailors' Rights': The Rhetoric of the War of 1812," Journal of the Early Republic, Spring 2010, Vol. 30 Issue 1, pp 1-23
  4. ^ Spencer Tucker, Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair (2006).
  5. ^ Carl Benn, The War of 1812 (2002) p. 4
  6. ^ 2 Stat. 451 (1807) Library of Congress, U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875
  7. ^ 2 Stat. 379 (1806) Library of Congress, U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875
  8. ^ Malone, Dumas (1974). Jefferson the President: The Second Term. Boston: Brown-Little. 
  9. ^ Harvey Strum, "Rhode Island and the Embargo of 1807." Rhode Island History 1994 52(2): 58-67
  10. ^ H. Nicholas Muller, "Smuggling into Canada: How the Champlain Valley Defied Jefferson's Embargo." Vermont History 1970 38(1): 5-21
  11. ^ Glenn Stine Gordinier, "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
  12. ^ Gordinier (2001)
  13. ^ a b c "Gallatin to Jefferson, December 1807" Vol.1, p.368 Adams, Henry (1879). The Writings of Albert Gallatin. Philadelphia: Lippincott. 
  14. ^ 2 Stat. 453 (1808) Library of Congress, U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875
  15. ^ Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (1990) ch 20
  16. ^ Strum (1994)

Further reading

  • Irwin, Douglas A. (2005). "The Welfare Cost of Autarky: Evidence from the Jeffersonian Trade Embargo, 1807–09". Review of International Economics 13 (4): 631–645. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9396.2005.00527.x. 
  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. (1957). "Jefferson, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Balance of Power". William and Mary Quarterly 14 (2): 196–217. doi:10.2307/1922110. 
  • Levy, Leonard W. (1963). Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Cambridge: Belknap Press. 
  • McDonald, Forrest (1976). The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0700601473. 
  • Malone, Dumas (1974). Jefferson the President: The Second Term. Boston: Little, Brown. ISBN 0316544655. 
  • Mannix, Richard (1979). "Gallatin, Jefferson, and the Embargo of 1808". Diplomatic History 3 (2): 151–172. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.1979.tb00307.x. 
  • Muller, H. Nicholas (1970). "Smuggling into Canada: How the Champlain Valley Defied Jefferson's Embargo". Vermont History 38 (1): 5–21. ISSN 0042-4161. 
  • Sears, Louis Martin (1927). Jefferson and the Embargo. Durham: Duke University Press. 
  • Smelser, Marshall (1968). The Democratic Republic, 1801–1815. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0061314064. 
  • Smith, Joshua M. (1998). "‘So Far Distant from the Eyes of Authority:’ Jefferson’s Embargo and the U.S. Navy, 1807–1809". In Symonds, Craig. New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Twelfth Naval History Symposium. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. pp. 123–140. ISBN 1557506248. 
  • Smith, Joshua M. (2000). "Murder on Isle au Haut: Violence and Jefferson’s Embargo in Coastal Maine, 1808–1809". Maine History 39 (1): 17–40. 
  • Smith, Joshua M. (2006). Borderland Smuggling: Patriots, Loyalists, and Illicit Trade in the Northeast, 1783–1820. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. ISBN 0813029864. 
  • Spivak, Burton (1979). Jefferson's English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. ISBN 0813908051. 
  • Strum, Harvey (1994). "Rhode Island and the Embargo of 1807". Rhode Island History 52 (2): 58–67. ISSN 0035-4619. 

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