|Long title||An Act laying an Embargo on all ships and vessels in the ports and harbors of the United States.|
|Statutes at Large||2 Stat. 451|
|Repealed by Non-Intercourse Act § 19|
the War of 1812
The embargo was imposed in response to violations of the United States neutrality, in which American merchantmen and their cargo were seized as contraband of war by the belligerent European navies. The British Royal Navy, in particular, resorted to impressment, forcing thousands of American seamen into service on their warships. Britain and France, engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, rationalized the plunder of U.S. shipping as incidental to war and necessary for their survival. Americans saw the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair as a particularly egregious example of a British violation of American neutrality. Perceived diplomatic insults and unwarranted official orders issued in support of these actions by European powers were argued by some to be grounds for a U.S. declaration of war.
President Thomas Jefferson acted with restraint as these antagonisms mounted, weighing public support for retaliation. He recommended that Congress respond with commercial warfare, rather than with military mobilization. The Embargo Act was signed into law on December 22, 1807. The anticipated effect of this 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.
Widespread evasion of the maritime and inland trade restrictions by American merchants, as well as loopholes in the legislation, greatly reduced the impact of the embargo on the intended targets in Europe. British merchant marine appropriated the lucrative trade routes relinquished by U.S. shippers due to the embargo. Demand for English goods rose in South America, offsetting losses suffered as a result of Non-Importation Acts. The embargo undermined national unity in the U.S., provoking bitter protests, especially in New England commercial centers. The issue vastly increased support for the Federalist Party and led to huge gains in their representation in Congress and in the electoral college in 1808. The embargo had the effect of simultaneously undermining American citizens' faith that their government could execute its own laws fairly, and strengthening the conviction among America's enemies that its republican form of government was inept and ineffectual. At the end of 15 months, the embargo was revoked on March 1, 1809, in the last days of Jefferson's presidency. Tensions with Britain continued to grow, leading to the War of 1812.
After the short truce in 1802–1803 the European wars resumed and continued until the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. 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.
The British system of impressment humiliated and dishonored the U.S. because it was unable to protect its ships and their sailors. 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.
On June 21, 1807 the American warship USS Chesapeake was attacked and boarded on the high seas off the coast of Norfolk, VA by the British warship HMS Leopard. Three Americans were dead and 18 wounded; the British impressed four seamen with American papers as alleged deserters. The outraged nation demanded action; President Jefferson ordered all British ships out of American waters.
Passed on December 22, 1807, the Act:
This shipping embargo was a cumulative addition to the Non-importation 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.
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.
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.
A case study of Rhode Island shows the embargo devastated shipping-related industries, wrecked existing markets, and caused an increase in opposition to the Democratic-Republican Party. Smuggling was widely endorsed by the public, who 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 American national foreign policy altering local patterns of political allegiance. Despite its unpopular nature, the Embargo Act did have some limited, unintended benefits to the Northeastern region especially as it drove capital and labor into New England textile and other manufacturing industries, lessening America's reliance on the British.
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.
The New England merchants who evaded the embargo were imaginative, daring, and versatile in their violation of federal law. 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 Customs 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.
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.":368
Since the bill hindered U.S. ships from leaving American ports bound for foreign trade; it had the side-effect of hindering American exploration.
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:
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.: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 Canada–US 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.
On March 12, 1808, Congress passed and Jefferson signed into law yet another supplement to the Embargo Act. This supplement prohibited, for the first time, all exports of any goods, whether by land or by sea. Violators were subject to a fine of US$10,000, plus forfeiture of goods, per offense. It granted the President broad discretionary authority to enforce, deny, or grant exceptions to the embargo.:144 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.
The Embargo was 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.
Shortly before leaving office, in March 1809, Jefferson signed the repeal of the failed Embargo. 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.
On March 1, 1809, 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 the government was ready to try yet another tactic of economic coercion, in the desperate measure known as Macon's Bill Number 2. This bill became law on May 1, 1810, and replaced the Non-Intercourse 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 non-intercourse 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 reinstated non-intercourse 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.
America's declaration of war, in mid-June 1812, was followed shortly by the Enemy Trade Act of 1812 on July 6, which employed similar restrictions as previous legislation; it was likewise ineffective and tightened in December 1813, and debated for further tightening in December 1814. After existing embargoes expired with the onset of war, the Embargo Act of 1813 was signed into law December 17, 1813. Four new restrictions were included: An embargo prohibiting all American ships and goods from leaving port; a complete ban on certain commodities customarily produced in the British Empire; a ban against foreign ships trading in American ports unless 75% of the crew were citizens of the ship's flag; and a ban on ransoming ships. The Embargo of 1813 was the nation's last great trade restriction. Never again would the US government cut off all its trade to achieve a foreign policy objective. The act particularly hurt the northeastern states, since the British kept a tighter blockade on the south, and thus encouraged American opposition to the administration. To make his point, the act was not lifted by Madison until after the defeat of Napoleon, and the point was moot. On February 15, 1815, Madison signed the Enemy Trade Act of 1815; it was tighter than any previous trade restriction including the Enforcement Act of 1809 (January 9) and the Embargo of 1813, but it would expire two weeks later when official word of peace from Ghent was received.
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