There were many economic measures that the United States utilized in the early 1800s in hopes of persuading Great Britain and France to honor its commercial rights as a neutral nation. The true significance of Macon’s Bill No. 2, the last economic measure, is in its failure and how it ultimately pushed the United States to war with Britain.
In the early 1800s Great Britain and France were in a desperate conflict due to Napoleon’s war that raged across continental Europe. Both nations attempted to harm the other by seizing neutral shipping bound for the other nation.
The United States was caught in the middle of this conflict. Heeding President Washington’s Farewell Address, the nation avoided taking sides in the European conflict, but also wished to exercise its rights as a neutral commercial entity.
Beginning in 1806 the United States passed a series of measures to punish Britain and France for the seizure of neutral American merchant ships. President Thomas Jefferson recognized that the US was far weaker militarily than either Britain or France and instead sought economic retaliation.
These retaliatory measures resulted in Macon’s Bill No. 2 in 1810 that sought to punish one nation as long as the other was willing to rescind its policy of seizing American ships.
Ultimately Macon’s Bill No. 2 did not fulfill any of its objectives and actually pushed the United States closer to war with Great Britain.
Economic Causes of the War of 1812
At the turn of the nineteenth century the United States was still in its infancy and relatively weak politically and militarily compared to its European nation-state counterparts.
However, the United States was a burgeoning economic power due to the vast amount of natural resources and raw materials at its disposal. The commercialized and trade-based New England states maintained huge fleets to trade in international ports.
When the Napoleonic wars consumed the European mainland primarily beginning in 1803, the US remained neutral, though it deigned to exercise its sovereign right to trade with the warring nations on both sides of the conflict.
In response Great Britain and France both began to seize American ships destined for their enemy’s ports. The British decreed the Orders in Council and the French issued the Berlin and Milan Decrees that authorized the behaviors.
Furthermore, Great Britain increased the frequency with which it boarded American ships and impressed former British sailors—and now Americans—into service. Incidents such as the Chesapeake-Leopard affair incensed Americans at the blatant violations of neutrality and sovereignty.
As the United States was too weak militarily to challenge the British or French for the violations, it turned to economic measures in an attempt to persuade the nations to reverse their edicts.
The United States passed three separate measures in succession hoping the economic pain of lost trade would bring sense to Britain and France.
- The Non-Importation Act of 1806
- The Embargo Act of 1807
- The Non-Intercourse Act of 1809
Each measure failed in its aim, and actually hurt the US economy far worse than the Europeans.
When seeking a fourth measure to replace the Non-Intercourse Act, new President James Madison turned to North Carolina Representative Nathanial Macon. Macon was a member of the “Old Republicans” who strictly adhered to anti-federalist principles and favored a weaker central government.
The “Old Republicans” did not like or trust Britain or France, and were particularly averse to war with Britain as it would help France.1
With this in mind, Macon was named Chairman of the Committee of Foreign Relations for the first session of the 11th Congress in early 1810 and set out to craft a new bill to replace the failed Non-Intercourse Act.2
Summary of Macon’s Bill No. 2
Macon’s Bill No. 2 can be summarized by the following three provisions in regards to Great Britain and France:
- Permitted neither British nor French warships to enter American ports or territorial waters.
- Repealed the Non-Intercourse Act and restored trade with both Britain and France on a temporary basis.
- If one nation revoked their edicts and ceased to violate American neutrality, the other had three months to reciprocate. If the other nation failed, the stipulations from the Non-Intercourse Act would return and only apply to the offending nation.
Macon’s Bill No. 2 was passed and signed into law by President Madison on May 1, 1810.
Interestingly, Nathaniel Macon did not endorse the final bill despite it bearing his name. He opposed it so much that he did not even vote on its passage in an attempt at protest.2
In response to the final version of the bill Macon stated that it was “hardly worth the time that has already been consumed.”1
Macon’s original proposed bill, called Macon’s Bill No. 1, contained entirely different proposals. The first version of the bill actually opened up all trade to Britain and France; however it restricted their imports to only arrive on American vessels.1
This was a bid to help the American commercial shipping sector that had particularly been affected by the US economic policies.
However, Senator Samuel Smith described Macon’s bill as “too weak” and helped use his connections to defeat the bill.1
Instead, Macon’s Bill No. 2 was eventually passed, despite not containing Smith’s proposal to arm American merchant ships. Opponents like Macon thought the revised bill was even less forceful as it demonstrated the Republicans’ unwillingness to go to war.
How did Macon’s Bill No. 2 Lead to the War of 1812?
Macon’s Bill No. 2 was one of the last retaliatory economic measures taken by the United States that helped directly lead to the War of 1812 with Great Britain.
The ultimate plan of the United States in regards to Macon’s Bill No. 2 was for France to come to the aid of the US and isolate Great Britain. Few in Congress expected the British to repeal the Orders in Council given how critical they were to their strategy of defeating Napoleon.2
As the US hoped, Napoleon viewed the bill favorably and took advantage. Six months later in November 1810 Napoleon revoked the Berlin and Milan Decrees.3
Thus began the three month window of opportunity for Britain to revoke the Orders in Council, which as expected, they refused.
The United States would soon find out that Napoleon was acting in bad faith. He did not truly abide by American neutrality and only hoped to manipulate the US into punishing the British for not doing the same.3
In fact, the French continued to seize American merchant ships even after the edicts were repealed. Despite this fact, Napoleon got what he hoped for as President Madison accepted his offer at face value, despite knowing American neutrality was being violated.4
Soon Great Britain was the sole nation the US would not trade with. The action further helped to divide the US and Britain as relations worsened.
Newspapers and politicians shared the outrage over British actions on the high seas far and wide, increasing the calls for war.
When the 12th Congress convened in March 1811, numerous “War Hawks” filled the seats, elected on their pledge to punish Britain.
On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. Macon’s Bill No. 2 and all other economic measures played a large role in leading to the War of 1812.
The Significance of Macon’s Bill No. 2 in 1810
The true historical significance of Macon’s Bill No. 2 lies in the fact that it further accelerated the timeline to the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain.
Macon’s Bill No. 2 was the last of a series of ultimately futile attempts by the United States to flex its economic might and coerce its opponents to neutral rights and sovereignty. Unfortunately, these attempts hurt the US economy much more than either the British or French economies.
It also had the effect of enraging the US populace and convincing the nation that war with Great Britain was inevitable. Tensions had long simmered in the background between the US and Britain despite the significant 1794 Jay’s Treaty resolving some grievances between the two countries.
The economic pain experienced by the United States in the leadup to the War of 1812 as a result of Macon’s Bill No. 2 and other measures helped further increase sectionalism in the US.
The New England states and Federalist base were against war with Great Britain and in favor of maintaining good relations with the British for commercial and economic reasons. The purpose of the 1814 Hartford Convention, which ultimately doomed the Federalists, was to address these grievances.
Although relations with Britain would soon normalize after the signing of the important Treaty of Ghent in 1815 and the significant Rush-Bagot Agreement in 1817, the US realized the importance of building a more self-sufficient economy.
The core tenants of Henry Clay’s American System aimed to solve that issue by emphasizing the development of American manufacturing by protecting the industry with tariffs, such as the Tariff of 1816.
Although Macon’s Bill No. 2 failed in its purpose and helped lead to the War of 1812, the collective lessons learned from the failures helped to modernize and develop the post-war economy.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) TRAUTSCH, JASPER M. “‘Mr. Madison’s War’ or the Dynamic of Early American Nationalism?” Early American Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, 2012, pp. 630–70, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23546696.
2) Dodd, William E. “The Place of Nathaniel Macon in Southern History.” The American Historical Review, vol. 7, no. 4, 1902, pp. 663–75, https://doi.org/10.2307/1834563.
3) Pancake, John S. “The ‘Invisibles’: A Chapter in the Opposition to President Madison.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 21, no. 1, 1955, pp. 17–37, https://doi.org/10.2307/2954825.
4) Champagne, Raymond W., and Thomas J. Rueter. “Jonathan Roberts and the ‘War Hawk’ Congress of 1811-1812.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 104, no. 4, 1980, pp. 434–49, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20091512.