Why Did the Embargo Act of 1807 Fail?

The Embargo Act of 1807 failure

In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson helped to pass one of the most controversial laws in US history. Just why Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 failed is a topic for debate amongst historians, though several theories are more widely accepted.

The Embargo Act was passed in response to repeated British and French violations of American neutrality and sovereignty. The law completely banned trade with all foreign nations.

British and French seizures of neutral American shipping vessels and British impressment of American sailors needed to be addressed.

Jefferson was faced with a difficult decision on how to respond. Prominent lawmakers such as John C. Calhoun called for war, while others hoped for a more peaceful resolution.

Ultimately Jefferson decided against war in favor of using the American economy as his primary weapon to coerce the British and French. The move failed as the Embargo Act was repealed less than two years later following massive backlash from the American public.

4 Reasons the Embargo Act of 1807 Failed

There were four primary reasons the Embargo Act of 1807 failed: a lack of political willpower, unpopularity in New England states, intricate smuggling operations, and the overall damage to the American economy.

Jefferson’s reputation also suffered from the embargo as he was forced to compromise his own Jeffersonian beliefs and ideals in the process of enforcing the act.

One of his last moves as President was to repeal the hated act in March 1809 and retire to private life away from the public spotlight.

Why the Embargo Act of 1807 Failed chart

Lack of Political Willpower

The main reason the Embargo Act of 1807 failed was due to a lack of political willpower. Simply put, Jeffersonian Democrats could not stomach the immense backlash from the American public.

President Jefferson naively thought that Americans would rally behind the embargo out of a sense of patriotic duty. That outcome could not have been further from the truth, even despite the Chesapeake-Leopard affair fanning the flames.

As unemployment soared and the American economy spiraled downwards, opposition to the embargo grew.

Traditional accounts suggest that the embargo was ineffective and hurt the American economy much more than the British or French.

Chesapeake-Leopard_affair
Depiction of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair via Mariners Museum

Harvard Economist Jeffrey A. Frankel argues that prices in Britain actually rose more than relative prices in the United States, suggesting Britain’s economy was more devastated by the embargo than previously thought.1

Americans were much more successful at substituting goods, therefore diminishing the effect of increasing prices. Had the embargo continued on, Britain may have been forced to give in to American demands to avoid a complete economic meltdown.

Americans suffering from the ill effects of the embargo were less concerned with its impact on the British economy. As long as Britain held out, the pressure on Jefferson and his party to repeal the embargo increased.

Voters in the election of 1808 signified their displeasure with the embargo, giving significantly more electoral votes to the struggling Federalist party.

Despite the embargo’s effectiveness, Jefferson repealed it in March 1809 in one of the last acts of his presidency.

Deeply Unpopular in New England States

Another reason the embargo failed was due to its overwhelming unpopularity in the New England states.

New England states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were primarily trade- and merchant-based. They also had a strong ship-building industry.

When the embargo banned all exports to foreign nations these states were perhaps impacted the most. Sailors were the first to lose their jobs, and shipbuilders saw their orders dry up as ships sat in wharfs.

The embargo crippled the New England economy and civil unrest and illegal smuggling activities soon followed. Unemployment skyrocketed and civilians demanded jobs or the repeal of the hated act.2

Americans were already divided over their preferences in supporting Britain or France. Federalists in New England preferred closer ties with Britain to help maintain their strong trade relations.

Jefferson Embargo Act cartoon
Cartoon of Jefferson having to explain the effects of his embargo via LOC

Jeffersonian Democrats favored closer ties with France due to their stronger republican values as well as general hatred of the British stemming from the American Revolution.

That division deepened as the Federalist party was revitalized over the issue of the embargo act. After a poor showing in the election of 1804 where the Federalists only carried two states, that number more than doubled to five states in the election of 1808.

New Englanders also voiced their displeasure by turning on Jeffersonian Democrats in Congress. Massachusetts Senator John Quincy Adams became one of the first casualties in the spring of 1808 following his support of the embargo.2

The deep unpopularity in New England was a major reason for the failure of the embargo act as the states’ efforts to repeal the act eventually bore fruit.

Illegal Smuggling Operations

As the embargo was rolled out, merchants began to devise methods to circumvent the strict enforcement. These smuggling operations became increasingly sophisticated the longer the embargo stayed in effect.

The United States naval blockade of shipping exports was considered to be extremely effective. Enforcement measures were bolstered in 1808 with subsequent follow-on acts to the Embargo Act.

Smugglers were forced to get creative in their methods to evade customs officials. Ships would be loaded in deserted river inlets away from traditional harbors. Deserted coastlines in low population density areas of the south were also utilized.1

Embargo Act smuggling
Cartoon depicting smuggler getting caught by “Ograbme” (embargo in reverse) via Wikimedia

Some of the most popular smuggling routes involved goods crossing the Canadian border. Lake Champlain to the St Lawrence River was commonly used as well as across Passamaquoddy Bay from Maine to New Brunswick.

In the south, goods were smuggled to Spanish Florida or through the British colonial island of Bermuda. Some southern merchants were even able to bypass embargo enforcement entirely and sail directly to Great Britain.

British records indicated that roughly 1.8 million pounds worth of goods were directly imported from the United States in 1808. Officials were all too eager to publicize these accounts to showcase to their own people the ineffectiveness of the embargo and division amongst the American populace.1

Officials on the destitute frontier oftentimes lacked the manpower and/or willpower to enforce the embargo. Some frontier populations veered on the brink of armed rebellion due to the embargo’s ill effects as well as Jefferson’s assault on their personal liberties.1

Although enforcement was generally considered to be good, extensive smuggling delegitimized federal authority and helped contribute to the failure of the Embargo Act of 1807.

Damage to American Economy

A last reason for the failure of the Embargo Act was simply that the damage to the American economy was too great to stomach for an extended period.

Exports and imports sharply dropped from 1807 to 1808 and the United States was unprepared to deal with the aftereffects. Exports declined a whopping 79% while imports dropped 60%, both incredibly significant figures.1

Sailors were the first to lose their jobs, but soon the negative effects rippled through the economy.

Shipbuilders stopped work, farmers who supplied products and food for long sea voyages lost their customers, and shortages of essential goods such as bread and wood began to mount.3

United States exports imports 1800s
Table of US exports and imports from 1790 to 1819 via NBER

Soup kitchens emerged to help feed those who were unable to find jobs or feed themselves. Nearly 20% of the population in some New England towns were reduced to such a condition.3

Unsurprisingly, protests and riots became commonplace as Americans voiced their displeasure with the embargo. Though Jefferson had infringed on the personal liberties with his passage of the embargo, he offered little in the way of support for the thousands of unemployed and suffering citizens.

Damage to the British and French economies from the embargo was also significant, but both had the political willpower to withstand the prolonged absence of trade.

Both nations were locked in the Napoleonic Wars and recognized that they must defeat the other at all costs.

The damage to the American economy was simply too great for the Embargo Act to last without significant further ramifications.

Conclusion

To recap, four primary reasons why the Embargo Act of 1807 failed were:

  1. Lack of political willpower
  2. Unpopularity in the New England states
  3. Illegal smuggling operations
  4. Damage to the American economy

While Jefferson repealed the embargo in March 1809 during the final days of his presidency, this was not the end of economic acts against Great Britain.

The Embargo Act was immediately followed by the Non-Intercourse act in 1809, then Macon’s Bill No. 2 in 1810. These latter two acts proved ineffective and were merely desperate attempts to avoid war with Great Britain.

So long as the British continued to seize American ships and sailors, war was unavoidable. Indeed, President Madison eventually acquiesced in 1812, leading the unprepared United States into the important War of 1812.

One of the few silver linings of the Embargo Act was that it helped spark the domestic manufacturing industry, primarily in the north.

The lack of British manufactured goods flooding the American market helped American manufacturers grow and expand. The US experience in the War of 1812 helped leaders recognize the perils of relying on foreign nations for specific goods.

Within a few decades, manufacturing would dominate in the north, thanks to the protectionist economic policies championed in Henry Clay’s American System.

The United States learned its lesson from the Embargo Act and following the War of 1812, the nation would never again implement a full embargo.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

Sources

1) 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.

2) 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.

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.

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