Embargo Act [December 22, 1807] - History

Embargo Act [December 22, 1807] - History

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Be it enacted . That an embargo be, and hereby is laid on all ships and vessels in the ports and places within the limits or jurisdiction of the United States, cleared or not cleared, bound to any foreign port or place; and that no clearance be furnished to any ship or vessel bound to such foreign port or place, except vessels under the immediate direction of the President of the United States: and that the President be authorized to give such instructions to the officers of the revenue, and of the navy and revenue cutters of the United States, as shall appear best adapted for carrying the same into full effect: Provided, that nothing herein contained shall be construed to prevent the departure of any foreign ship or vessel, either in ballast, or with the goods, wares and merchandise on board of such foreign ship or vessel, when notified of this act.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That during the continuance of this act, no registered, or sea letter vessel, having on board goods, wares and merchandise, shall be allowed to depart from one port of the United States to any other within the same, unless the master, owner, consignee or factor of such vessel shall first give bond, with one or more sureties to the collector of the district from which she is bound to depart, in a sum of double the value of the vessel and cargo, that the said goods, wares, or merchandise shall be relanded in some port of the United States, dangers of the seas excepted, which bond, and also a certificate from the collector where the same may be relanded, shall by the collector respectively be transmitted to the Secretary of the Treasury. All armed vessels possessing public commissions from any foreign power, are not to be considered as liable to the embargo laid by this act.

What Was The Embargo Act of 1807?

The Embargo Act of 1807, enacted by US Congress, was meant to put economic hardship on their rival nations.

The Embargo Act of 1807 was a general embargo which was enacted by the Congress of the United States of America. The law was meant to prohibit the American ships from trading and interacting with foreign ships in foreign ports. The law was mostly aimed at French and British ships and was enacted as a reaction to the seizure of the US ships, which were suspected to be having war contraband. The move was seen as a violation of US’s neutrality in the Napoleonic War. The Embargo Act of 1807 was passed as payback for the many seizures but mostly the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.

The Embargo Act of 1807: Thomas Jefferson’s Failed Foreign Relations Policy

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.

While the intentions of the act may have been noble, in reality, the embargo act of 1807 meant to hurt the British and the French ended in failure.

The year was 1807

It had been more than twenty years since America had declared her Independence from Great Britain, and the English were understandably still a little bitter about the whole situation. The colonies had, after all, been quite a profitable commodity for them, not to mention a good solid chunk of their empire in terms of land mass.

In addition, The Napoleonic Wars were well underway in Europe, and so the British and the French were at each others’ throats.

Out of this state of affairs came two decisions which affected all Americans. From the British came the Orders in Council, and from the French came Napoleon’s Continental System. Both of these actions contained laws prohibiting trade with the other nation, or any nation who might be friendly to them.

As a result, American shipping to both nations was severely affected, even though she had previously been one of very few absolutely neutral nations in relation to the European conflict.

The Embargo

This is the background to Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, an action considered by some to be one of the worst decisions ever made by a president.

The purpose of the embargo was simple send a message to the powers in Europe, seeing to it that until the Orders in Council and Continental System were rescinded they would no longer have a loyal customer in America.

In addition, Jefferson hoped that the Act would end British impressment, which occurred when British ships stopped American ships at sea and kidnapped any American sailors whom they suspected to be British citizens forcing them to serve the British navy.

The Act specifically stated that American ships could carry cargo to no foreign port and that foreign ships could not load any cargo in American ports.

Results of the Act

The Act passed through congress by a wide margin in December of 1807 (a month later and it would have forever been known as the Embargo act of 1808), and while it effectively lessened the issue of impressment (mainly because shipping overseas had all but stopped), it also succeeded in immediately driving up the prices of even domestic shipping to an unreasonable rate.

Due to an unusually abundant planting season in Europe the following year, both the English and the French had far less reason than usual to be dependent on American goods, so the Embargo, for the most part, hurt no one but Americans.

Recognizing that the Act had become an unmitigated disaster, congress finally repealed the Act on March 1, 1809, just three days before Jefferson left office, replacing it with a limited embargo on Britain and France.

As James Madison took over as President (after having been Secretary of State under Jefferson, and thus partly responsible for the embargo act), the embargo remained the subject of Anti-Jeffersonian political cartoons. Anti-embargo cartoonists even created a mascot for their cause, a turtle named O-Grab-Me (Embargo, spelled backwards).

With the embargo gone and American ships once again on the high seas, impressment by the British began to occur once again and, coupled with several other issues, led three years later to the bloody War of 1812.

The Embargo Act of 1807 to this day serves as a valuable learning tool for politicians, economists, and students of world affairs to better understand policies and their consequences.


The Embargo was doing little to Great Britain or France, yet Americans suffered. In order to compensate for the loss of American trade, the British began to build up a South American market without any competition from the United States.

President Thomas Jefferson found himself to be a walking contradiction. He had for years been critical of Federalists policies and argued that they often over-reached and violated states rights. The Embargo Act of 1807 was the same thing that Jefferson had argued against. Jefferson was now supporting legislation that required the Federal government to enforce it.

His political opponents seized on the contradiction and in the presidential election of 1808 the Federalists showed signs of gaining strength.

Congress passed the Non-intercourse Act in 1809 which failed and then passed the Macon Bill both were unsuccessful.

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.

James Madison attempted to restrict foreign trade further with the passing of the Embargo Act of 1813.

After the War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent the United States would repeal the acts. They would never again restrict trade with a foreign country as a means to avoid war.

Rise Of Political Parties In The 1790s Essay

The Federalists opposed this position because they did not want to become allies with the French because they were pro-British. “The United States in the mean Time at Their discretion extending their settlements to any part within the said boundary line, except within the precincts or Jurisdiction of any of the said Posts” (Document B). Jay’s Treaty was signed and discussed to avoid the war with Britain. It states that the British government withdrew all of the threats against United States’ sailors. The Federalists strategy was to strengthen the economic ties with Britain.&hellip


Thomas Malthus, a British political economist, had a gloomy revelation after a visit to India. The world ’ s population, Malthus predicted, would soon face a crisis of survival. People were being born faster than new land could be cultivated to feed them all. While the world ’ s food supply increased steadily, its population had been increasing geometrically since the 1600s and would soon exhaust the food supply. In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson was reading a new edition of Malthus ’ s “ Essay on Population ” when French writer Jean-Baptiste Say sent him a copy of his own essay, Trait é d ’ Economie Politique (1803). Jefferson ’ s response reveals his own more optimistic prediction for the world ’ s future.

The differences of circumstances between this and the old countries of Europe, furnish differences of fact whereon to reason, in questions of political economy, and will consequently produce sometimes a difference of result. There, for instance, the quantity of food is fixed, or increasing in a slow and only arithmetical ratio, and the proportion is limited by the same ratio. Supernumerary births consequently add only to your mortality. Here the immense extent of uncultivated and fertile lands enables every one who will labor, to marry young, and to raise a family of any size. Our food, then, may increase geometrically with our laborers, and our births, however multiplied, become effective. Again, there the best distribution of labor is supposed to be that which places the manufacturing hands alongside the agricultural so that the one part shall feed both, and the other part furnish both with clothes and other comforts. Would that be the best here? Egoism and first appearances say yes. Or would it better that all our laborers should be employed in agriculture? In this case a double or a treble portion of fertile lands would be brought into culture a double or treble creation of food be produced, and its surplus go to nourish the now perishing births of Europe, who in return would manufacture and send us in exchange our clothes and other comforts. Morality listens to this, and so invariably do the laws of nature create our duties and interests, that when they seem to be at variance, we ought to suspect some fallacy in our reasonings. In solving this question, too, we should allow its just weight to the moral and physical preference of the agricultural, over the manufacturing, man. My occupations permit me only to ask questions. They deny me the time, if I had the information, to answer them. Perhaps, as worthy the attention of the author of the Trait é d ’ Economie Politique, I shall find them answered in that work. If they are not, the reason will have been that you wrote for Europe while I shall have asked them because I think for America.

Source: Thomas Jefferson to J. B. Say, Washington, D.C., 1 February 1804, in The Portable Thomas Jefferson, edited by Merrill Peterson (New York: Penguin, 1975).

Economic Consequences. The Embargo had an immediate effect on American trade exports declined 75 percent and imports fell by 50 percent. New England merchants suffered the most since they were most directly involved in foreign trade. Southern farmers also suffered since they depended on exports of their staple crops, tobacco and cotton. The middle and western states were relatively unaffected since farming linked to the domestic market was the primary economic activity there. Prices and earnings fell and unemployment rose, bringing on a serious depression lasting until the end of the War of 1812. Over time Americans began to recover

some of their losses as southerners began to sell their cotton to northern textile mills. The mills themselves started to grow to meet the domestic demand for cloth, which previously had been supplied by British imports. Some traders found loopholes in the law or even illegal ways around the Embargo, and violations of its terms were especially common in Maine and Florida.

Political Consequences. Many Americans linked the Embargo with the policies of the Jeffersonian party. Both Jeffersonians and Federalists disliked involvement in European affairs, but Federalists had advocated that military strength was the way to deal with threats from abroad. The Jeffersonians drew on the tradition of nonimportation from the American Revolution to argue that commercial policy was itself a way of affecting other countries. Thus, the Embargo was an assertion of America ’ s importance to Britain and France, and Jefferson meant to make them reopen their trade by denying them the benefits of it. Jefferson called the Embargo a “ candid and liberal experiment ” in “ peaceful coercion. ” However worthy these pacifist ideals, Europe felt the Embargo less than the United States. The act was deeply opposed by a revived Federalist Party, centered at that time in the New England cities which were most affected by the boycott. After 1808 “ Mr. Jefferson ’ s Embargo ” became increasingly unpopular, as Josiah Quincy and Thomas Pickering of Massachusetts led a fight against it in Congress. They were aided from within Jefferson ’ s party by John Randolph of Virginia. Tempers ran so high on the issue that two congressmen, George Campbell of Tennessee and Barent Gardenier of New York, even fought a duel. Most seriously, some New England Federalists threatened to have their states nullify the federal act and withdraw from the Union, making the end of the Embargo inevitable, if the nation was to survive.

Non-Intercourse Act. Congress repealed the Embargo in March 1809, three days before the end of Jefferson ’ s term, substituting the much less stringent Non-Intercourse Act. The Non-Intercourse Act barred trade only with France and Britain, and it would resume with either or both countries once they stopped violating American neutrality. This policy left no one happy — merchants still disliked any restrictions, and President James Madison felt increasingly pressured by the loss of import duties, a main source of government money in the period. Several adjustments failed to solve the problems, and in March 1811 Madison reimposed non-intercourse, this time against Britain only. This was a tacit acknowledgment that the commercial conflict was so severe that war was unavoidable and a choice that it was better to fight Britain. The result was the War of 1812, declared the following June. The war continued to disrupt trade and put a serious strain on the nation ’ s finances. The depression that began in 1807 did not fully ease until 1816, although the need to rely on domestic manufactured goods was a spur to American industry that would later display its true significance in the industrialization of the Jacksonian period.

In 1807 the United States Congress passed an Embargo Act that prohibited American ships from trading in all foreign ports. The act was in response to a dire situation America faced when it found itself caught between a French and British war.

The message this cartoon is trying to send is that the Embargo Act kind of hinderd the import business. This cartoon shows Thomas Jefferson being victimized by both Britain(left) and France (right). This picture shows a turtle with a license biting a man (a smuggler) who is trying to go back to the Britain ship.

Jefferson’s failed Embargo Act of 1807

The Embargo Act of 1807 was an effort by President Thomas Jefferson to keep the United States out of European wars that had been waged since 1803. In Europe, Napoleon was sweeping across the continent, and almost every European power was aligned against France. Initially, the United States sought to continue trade with Europe, but France and Britain refused to acknowledge the United States’ neutrality

Soon, Britain began attacking US merchant ships and impressing United States merchant sailors into the British navy. To limit United States involvement in the European conflicts, Jefferson decided to close United States ports to all foreign trade. Instead of engaging with Europe, Jefferson essentially withdrew.

His effort to remain neutral in the face of European warfare was noble but ultimately failed to accomplish his goal. Not only did American traders flout the blockade by smuggling goods in and out of the United States, but before his presidency ended Jefferson reluctantly rescinded the embargo and allowed trade between the United States and all other foreign countries excluding Britain and France.

Embargo of 1807

Shortly after the Chesapeake Affair, Thomas Jefferson received a letter from his friend John Page in Richmond on July 12, 1807, quoting the many citizens who insisted that ". an immediate Embargo is necessary . to retrieve our lost honor, & to bring the mad King to his senses." 17 Although Jefferson was not fully opposed to an embargo, he wanted to allow ample time for American naval ships to return stateside.

Impressment was continuing and the British showed no sign of wanting to improve relations between the two nations. When James Madison updated the United States Congress on impressment statistics early in 1808, he reported, "From the returns in the office it would appear that 4228 American Seamen had been impressed into the British service since the commencement of the War, and that 936 of this number had been discharged leaving in that service 3292." 18

On December 15, 1807, Jefferson called his cabinet members to discuss the next phase of reconciliation. 19 Shortly afterwards, the President received news from Europe that did not rule in favor of a settlement. In fact, England released a royal proclamation that promised more impressments. In addition to this, Napoleon had the full intention of subjecting U.S. shipping to the Berlin Decree, an act created in response to a British blockade on France. 20 The situation in Europe showed no signs of improvement. The Jefferson administration needed to respond.

As December 1807 began, debate about an embargo was heating up in Congress. Two key figures against the measure were Massachusetts Governor James Sullivan and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. Sullivan's constituents would be greatly affected by the measure as most of American commercial shipping was based in his state. Secretary Gallatin, on the other hand, faced the problem of enforcing the measure. 21 Gallatin suggested amending the present Non-Importation Act instead of imposing a full embargo. In a letter to Jefferson, Gallatin argued, "In every point of view, privations, sufferings, revenue, effect on the enemy, politics at home &c., I prefer war to a permanent embargo." 22 Jefferson, however, was unmoved by arguments against the embargo, and failed to see the benefits of a restrictive economic policy like the Non-Importation Act. He delivered the following remarks before Congress on December 17, 1807:

Four days later the United States Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, making the Non-Importation Act obsolete.

Wanting to maintain peace for as long as possible, Jefferson supported the Embargo Act. Some changes to the act were needed, however, and Congress addressed these changes by passing the "supplementary," "additional," and "enforcement" acts in 1807 and 1808. 24 The supplementary act required ". bonds from vessels in the coastwise trade, and also from those engaged in fishing and whaling." The additional act "tightened the system by requiring bonds for foreign vessels engaged in the coastal trade and, what was more significant, it forbade the exportation of goods of any sort by land as well as by sea." 25 Because the embargo had prompted an increase in smuggling, the enforcement act allowed port authorities to seize cargoes if there was any suspicion of violation of the embargo, and the President himself was empowered to use the Army or the Navy for additional enforcement.

21c. Diplomatic Challenges in an Age of European War

While serving as a Kentucky Representative to the Congress, Henry Clay was a leading "War Hawk," strongly in favor of going to war for a second time with Britain to ensure America's place in the West.

While western movement and policies were reshaping the republic, European wars also presented a major challenge to the new country. The Napoleonic Wars (1802-1815) were a continuation of the conflict begun in the 1790s when Great Britain lead a coalition of European powers against Revolutionary France, though France was now led by the brilliant military strategist Napoleon Bonaparte. As had also been true in the 1790s, neither European superpower respected the neutrality of the United States. Instead, both tried to prevent U.S. ships from carrying goods to their enemy. Both Britain and France imposed blockades to limit American merchants, though the dominant British navy was clearly more successful.

In response to this denial of American sovereignty, President Jefferson and his secretary of state James Madison crafted an imaginative, but fundamentally flawed, policy of economic coercion. Their Embargo of 1807 prevented U.S. ships from any trade with Europe in the belief that dependence on American goods would soon force France and England to honor American neutrality. The plan backfired, however, as the Republican leaders failed to understand how deeply committed the superpowers were to carrying on their war despite its high costs.

The Napoleonic Wars in Europe had a great effect on the happenings of the 19th-century United States.

The Embargo not only failed diplomatically, but also caused enormous domestic dissent. American shippers, who were primarily concentrated in Federalist New England, generally circumvented the unpopular law. Its toll was clearly marked in the sharp decline of American imports from 108 million dollars worth of goods in 1806 to just 22 million in 1808. This unsuccessful diplomatic strategy that mostly punished Americans helped to spur a Federalist revival in the elections of 1808 and 1812. Nevertheless, Republicans from Virginia continued to hold the presidency as James Madison replaced Jefferson in 1808.

Madison faced difficult circumstances in office with increasing Indian violence in the west and war-like conditions on the Atlantic. These combined to push him away from his policy of economic coercion toward an outright declaration of war. This intensification was favored by a group of westerners and southerners in Congress called " War Hawks ," who were led by Henry Clay of Kentucky.

Future President Andrew Jackson seized the day by defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans in January, 1815. Unfortunately, neither army had learned that the War of 1812 ended on Christmas Eve, 2 weeks earlier.

Most historians now agree that the War of 1812 was "a western war with eastern labels." By this they mean that the real causes of the war stemmed from desire for control of western Indian lands and clear access to trade through New Orleans. Further, the issue of national sovereignty, so clearly denied by British rejection of American free trade on the Atlantic, provided a more honorable rationale for war. Even with the intense pressure of the War Hawks, the United States entered the war hesitantly and with especially strong opposition from Federalist New England. When Congress declared war in June 1812, its heavily divided votes (19 to 13 in the Senate and 79 to 49 in the House) suggest that the republic entered the war as a divided nation.

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