In the early 19th century Thomas Jefferson signed into law one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in US history: the Embargo Act. The significance of the Embargo Act of 1807 lies in how ineffectual it was at preventing war with Great Britain and the massive backlash it faced from the American populace.
Tensions between the United States and Great Britain remained high in the decades following the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution. Jay’s Treaty of 1794 did little to help as the list of grievances grew longer.
Violations of American sovereignty—particularly over its right to neutral trade and the impressment of American sailors—forced President Thomas Jefferson to respond.
Jefferson was an avid pacifist and preferred to use the United States’ burgeoning economic might to persuade Britain to reconsider its policies. The result was the Embargo Act of 1807 which banned all trade with foreign nations.
Enforcement of the embargo proved difficult as Jefferson was wrong in his prediction that Americans would abide by the terms out of a patriotic sense of duty. In turn, he was forced to compromise his own Jeffersonian beliefs and ideals to deter illegal smuggling activities.
The Embargo Act failed to prevent war with Great Britain, was incredibly unpopular, and left a stain on Jefferson’s presidency. One of Jefferson’s last acts as president was to repeal the hated embargo in 1809.
Why Was the Embargo Act of 1807 Passed?
In 1807 Congress passed the Embargo Act in response to numerous British and French violations of American sovereignty. The United States was enraged over the following incidents and policies:
- British impressment of American sailors
- Chesapeake-Leopard affair
- British Orders in Council
- Berlin and Milan Edicts
The British policy of impressment, or the seizure of sailors accused of being British Royal Navy deserters, was a longstanding issue. When the British increased the number of impressments in response to a shortage of sailors due to the Napoleonic Wars the United States grew ever more agitated.
Many of those impressed into British service were American citizens and the act was a blatant violation of American sovereignty.
The issue came to a head during the Chesapeake-Leopard affair when the British fired upon an American ship killing three sailors, wounding eighteen others, and then impressing four American sailors into British service.
The United States was outraged over the attack on a neutral American ship and there were many in Congress who called for war with Great Britain.
Other policies that angered the United States were the British Orders in Council and the French Berlin and Milan Edicts. Both policies were enacted to prevent trade with the opposing nation, with neutral America caught in the cross-hairs.
Under these policies both the British and French could seize American vessels in route to the opposing nation. The prevention of trade was a clear violation of American neutrality, and the ship seizures infringed upon US sovereignty.
Prior to the embargo’s passage in 1807 Britain had already seized 917 American ships while the French had seized 558 ships.1
As public outrage grew Jefferson was left with few choices. Instead of war he chose to utilize the American economy as his weapon of choice. His decision would ultimately backfire.
The Significance of the Embargo Act of 1807
The historical significance of the Embargo Act of 1807 lies in how it devastated the American economy, how its failure helped lead to further economic policies and eventually to the War of 1812, and how it further undermined American republicanism.
The embargo would also have drastic impacts on American society as a whole. Thomas Jefferson’s image suffered as a result and the act revitalized the Federalist party in some parts of the nation.
Devastated the American Economy
One of the most significant aspects of the Embargo Act of 1807 was how it damaged the American economy.
This is shown in how American exports drastically declined from $103M in 1807 to just $22M in 1808—a 79% decline. Imports declined from $139M to $57M from 1807-1808—a 60% decline.2
The sharp reduction in economic activity first hurt New England states that were primarily trade-based, but the embargo’s effects rippled through the economy.
Sailors were the first to lose their jobs, but soon the effects were felt everywhere. Shipbuilders saw their orders dwindle and farmers had neither foreign markets for their grain nor ships to supply for the long voyage.3
Cotton and tobacco plantations in the south suffered as the crops were primarily exported to Britain. Only the western frontier states and territories were relatively unscathed as their economic activity was primarily domestic-based.
Furthermore the Embargo Act was undermined by a sophisticated smuggling operation. In the north merchants would bypass the self-imposed shipping blockade by smuggling goods north across Lake Champlain into Canada.2
In the south merchants slipped the border to send goods through Spanish Florida. The low population density and long coastline throughout the south made enforcement of the embargo difficult.
In 1808 Britain still recorded some direct cotton imports from the United States, suggesting that the blockade in the south was not 100% effective.2
While the American economy was devastated, Britain’s economy was more able to weather the storm. Prices increased particularly for former American imports such as cotton and British consumers felt the pain from the loss of American raw materials.
However, British leaders determined that Napoleon must be defeated at all costs, and thus the loss of American trade was an unavoidable consequence.
Led to Further Economic Acts
The Embargo Act was a catastrophic failure. Jefferson was left with no choice but to repeal the hated act in his last days in office before James Madison became President.
Despite the act’s failure, the United States’ grievances were still unresolved. Though calls for war grew louder in 1809, popular support for a war with Britain was not high enough.
Madison ultimately decided to continue on with Jefferson’s preference of economic warfare.
The Embargo Act was immediately replaced with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 that opened up all trade with foreign nations except for Britain and France.
This allowed the American shipping industry to resume in a limited capacity, as shown by the increase in exports from $22M in 1808 to $52M in 1809.
The act proved nearly impossible to enforce and was subsequently succeeded by Macon’s Bill No. 2. This bill was named after North Carolina Representative Nathaniel Macon, despite his opposition to the law.
Macon’s Bill stated that should France or Britain cease to disrupt American shipping, the United States would lift the embargo on that nation and maintain a full embargo on the other.
France immediately took the bait by promising to repeal the Berlin and Milan Decrees, despite still seizing American ships. Madison was forced to turn the embargo solely on Great Britain.
None of the four economic policies proved effective enough for Britain to lift the dreaded Orders in Council.
Although the American economy struggled for years due to the deleterious effects of the embargo, this helped spur development of the nascent manufacturing industry primarily in northern states.
Helped Lead to the War of 1812
The Embargo Act was one of the major causes of the War of 1812.
Cries for war with Great Britain only grew louder as the full effects of the embargo devastated the American economy. The crisis further stoked anti-British sentiment across the nation and the embargo’s failure made war one of the few options available to resolve the disputes.
Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, personally preferred war over an embargo.4
Gallatin foresaw the difficulties in trying to enforce such an embargo and the political and social ramifications that could result.
To his credit, Gallatin nevertheless led the charge on crafting further legislation to help address deficiencies in the original embargo act. Congress passed two further supplemental laws in 1808 designed to address loopholes that merchants used to bypass the embargo.4
Public backlash over the strict enforcement convinced Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican party that the embargo was politically untenable. Its repeal showed that the United States did not have the stomach to continue the economic sanctions.
Unfortunately, the British and French did not reverse their policies, and tensions continued to grow.
Anti-British sentiment had long simmered throughout the nation, particularly in the south. Southerners still remembered heavy-handed British tactics in the region during the American Revolution such as during the events leading up to the Battle of Cowpens.
It did not take much to convince these so-called “War Hawks” that military action was the only thing that could make the British rescind their policies. The War Hawks would finally get their wish in 1812 when the United States declared war on Great Britain.
Undermined American Republicanism
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Embargo Act of 1807 was how it undermined American republicanism.
Thomas Jefferson was considered a defender of American republicanism through his own movement often called Jeffersonian Democracy. Jeffersonians encouraged their followers to emphasize virtue, civic duty, opposition to aristocracy, personal liberties, and a limited federal government, among other ideals.
During Jefferson’s presidency British and French actions on the high seas were drawing the nation closer to war.
As a pacifist, Jefferson was faced with an impossible decision: bring the nation to war or infringe upon the personal liberties of American citizens which his ideology so thoroughly opposed.
President Jefferson chose the latter, and helped urge on the passage of the Embargo Act of 1807.
Jefferson naively hoped that American citizens would support and abide by the embargo out of a patriotic sense of duty. Instead, smuggling became rampant and angry, unemployed laborers demanded the “unconstitutional” act be repealed.
The smuggling and law evasion forced Jefferson to infringe on the civil liberties of American citizens and also increase the size of the military to aid in enforcement. The federal government cracked down on smuggling across the border and even combated shipping routes of suspected smugglers from the Carolinas to New England.2
Jefferson was dismayed at the idea of having to betray his principles and left much of the enforcement to Gallatin.
The embargo sapped the energy out of Jefferson who eagerly looked forward his post-presidency days. Jefferson himself perhaps said it best in 1796, foreshadowing his rocky second term:
“I know well that no man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it.”
To recap, the historical significance of the Embargo Act of 1807 is primarily explained by the following outcomes:
- Devastated the American Economy
- Led to further Economic Acts
- Helped Lead to the War of 1812
- Undermined American Republicanism
The legacy of the embargo would last generations and Thomas Jefferson’s reputation suffered greatly as a result.
The multiple laws to strengthen the embargo within a thirteen month time span hint at just how difficult the law was to enforce and the inefficiency of lawmakers to predict the ramifications.1
Jefferson’s embargo helped to revitalize the ailing Federalist party in its New England stronghold, though only for a time. The divisive nature of the embargo and war led to the controversial Hartford Convention of 1814 where secession was debated.
The embargo and War of 1812 also helped the Jeffersonian Democrats to adapt their views. President Madison backed the charter of the Second National Bank of the United States and helped to pass the Protective Tariff of 1816 which helped the US manufacturing industry develop.
Both these events were against traditional Jeffersonian values and highlighted the steady transition from Jeffersonian Democracy to Jacksonian Democracy.
The economic downturn caused by the Embargo Act of 1807 would not be the last in the United States. The Panic of 1819 and Panic of 1837 highlighted that economic depressions would be common in a market-based economy as the United States emerged as a global leader in trade.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Jennings, Walter W. “The Agitation for the Repeal of the Embargo Act.” Social Science, vol. 3, no. 3, 1928, pp. 217–46. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23902087.
2) Frankel, Jeffrey A. “The 1807-1809 Embargo Against Great Britain.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 42, no. 2, 1982, pp. 291–308. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2120129.
3) Phillips, James Duncan. “Jefferson’s ‘Wicked Tyrannical Embargo.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 4, 1945, pp. 466–78. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/361063.
4) MANNIX, RICHARD. “Gallatin, Jefferson, and the Embargo of 1808.” Diplomatic History, vol. 3, no. 2, 1979, pp. 151–72. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24909931.