After a short truce in 1802–1803 the Napoleonic Wars resumed in Europe.
This war caused American relations with both Britain and France to deteriorate rapidly. There was grave risk that America could be drawn into war with one or the other.
With Britain supreme on the sea, and France supreme on land, the Napoleonic War developed into a struggle between blockade and counter-blockade.
This commercial war peaked in 1807 when Britain’s Royal Navy shut down most European harbors to American ships unless they first traded through British ports.
France in response 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 sailors, and realized the U.S. merchant fleet had become a haven for defecting British sailors.
The British system of impressment was put into action, humiliating and dishonoring the United States by stopping American merchant ships seeking British deserters and taking thousands of American sailors and forcing them into service in the Royal Navy.
This practice caused bitter anger in the United States who seemed unable to protect its own ships and sailors.
American anger reached its 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 incident was perceived by Americans as an insult to American honor; combined with the increased commercial restrictions, it produced a demand for war in the United States.
President Thomas Jefferson tried to act with restraint as these antagonisms mounted, weighing public support for any retaliation.
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.
Congress had already put into effect a non-importation act, originally passed in April of 1806, which refused entry to many British goods.
Accordingly, in December of 1807, President Jefferson recommended to Congress an embargo which would prohibit all American ships from departing for a foreign port rather than with military mobilization.
This response, in effect, would end American foreign trade.
Congress then passed The Embargo Act of 1807, formally titled “An Embargo laid on Ships and Vessels in the Ports and Harbours of the United States”
The Embargo Act:
- 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.
The Embargo Act was signed into law by President Jefferson on December 22, 1807.
The anticipated effect of this drastic measure – economic hardship for the belligerent nations – was expected to chasten Great Britain and France, and force them to end their molestation of American shipping, respect U.S. neutrality, and cease the policy of impressment.
The embargo turned out to be impractical as a coercive measure, and was a failure both diplomatically and economically.
As implemented, the legislation inflicted devastating burdens on the U.S. economy and the American people.
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.
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.”
Since the bill hindered U.S. ships from leaving American ports bound for foreign trade; it had the side-effect of hindering American exploration.
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.
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