Today in history, the Embargo Act of 1807 was signed into law by President Thomas Jefferson. Passed at the height of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Jefferson and the Republicans hoped to use the embargo to preserve American neutrality and avoid foreign entanglements.
Early in the 19th century, the neutrality of the United States was tested repeatedly. In France, Napoleon had enacted the Continental System, which prohibited the importation of British goods into Europe. The British responded by imposing their own trade restrictions against the French. During this time, the British antagonized American ships, continuing the practice of impressment and treating the neutral United States as if it were an enemy power. This situation culminated in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, where a British warship attacked and boarded an American frigate and captured its crew.
Since the incident caused a huge public uproar, Jefferson faced a tough decision. The president did not want to embroil the United States in a conflict with a major world power, but also hoped to protect American citizens from foreign assaults. Ultimately, he promoted a full-scale embargo as a method to avoid war with both France and England. Though he philosophically favored free economic pursuits, the unyielding policy represented a desperate attempt to avoid military conflict. To Jefferson, enlightenment philosophy had opened the possibility of waging war economically rather than military, and no circumstance was worse than wartime depravity.
In Congress, the law was highly controversial. Former Jefferson ally John Randolph of Roanoke derided the bill, believing it to be a violation of the Constitution. Even Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, vehemently objected to the policy. “As to the hope that it may…induce England to treat us better,” he wrote to Jefferson, “I think it is entirely groundless.” Gallatin explained that “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.”
By all accounts, the embargo backfired. The disastrous policy crippled New England’s maritime economy, which thrived on foreign trade. At the same point, Britain released a royal proclamation that promised more impressments and attacks on American vessels. Jefferson was ambushed in the press, where he was characterized as a loathsome villain. Despite this, he and Secretary of State James Madison worked diligently to enforce the embargo.
In New England, many found ways to resist the policy, and Jefferson’s political enemies responded by invoking Jefferson’s own “Principles of 98” against him. Massachusetts passed a resolution that condemned the embargo as “unjust, oppressive, and unconstitutional, and not legally binding on citizens of this state.” Connecticut passed a similar act, declaring the embargo unconstitutional and iterating that state officials would refuse to “assist, or concur in giving effect to the aforesaid unconstitutional act.” Rhode Island even passed a resolution that borrowed some verbatim language from the Virginia Resolutions of 1798, written by Madison. Ironically, it was Madison that was largely responsible for enforcing the law.
Congress denied Jefferson the troops he desired to enforce the policy, and merchants and shippers simply ignored the law. Without the resources necessary for enforcement, the embargo went unheeded and the Jefferson administration suffered greatly. In upstate New York, Vermont, and parts of Maine, the law was openly flouted and the federal officials considered these reasons to be in open insurrection. Rumblings of northern secession were plentiful, and many believed the embargo had brought their region under the thumb of oppression by the general government.
The lowest point of Jefferson’s political career, the Embargo Act brought the president and his Republican Party under a degree of scrutiny it had never before witnessed. In the end, the president and most of his Republican allies realized the failure of his policy. In one of his last days in office, Jefferson signed the Non-Intercourse Act, repealing the Embargo Act’s application to Britain and France.
When Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, initiated another embargo in 1812, the program created additional economic hardship and proved similarly ineffective. Tensions with the British were exacerbated, and the British continued assaulting American ships and impressing their crew into the Royal Navy. Rather than averting war, conflict came to the American doorstep as Britain and the United States clashed in the War of 1812.