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Embargo of 1807

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The Embargo of 1807 was a series of laws passed by the U.S. Congress 1806-1808, during the second term of President Thomas Jefferson. Britain and France were engaged in a major war; the U.S. wanted to remain neutral and trade with both sides, but neither side wanted the other to have the American supplies. The American goal was to use economic warfare to avoid war, punish Britain, and force it to respect American rights.

Initially, these acts sought to punish Britain for its violation of American rights on the high seas, The chief complaint was the impressment or seizure by force of 6,000 sailors off American ships. These sailors claimed to be American citizens; if they had been born in the British Empire, the Royal Navy considered them still British, seized them and put them in their navy.

The later Embargo Acts, particularly those of 1807-1808 period, were passed in an attempt to stop Americans from defying the embargo by sales to Britain or France. The embargo caused enormous protest, especially from New England, orchestrated by the Federalist Party. They were repealed as Jefferson left office in early 1809. Grievances against Britain continued, however, leading to the War of 1812.


The underlying cause was a series of restrictions on U.S. commerce imposed by the European belligerents. In the early stages of the Napoleonic wars, the United States had grown wealthy as the chief of neutral carriers at a time when British shipping was dedicated to war purposes. This era of prosperity endured from about 1793 to 1805, to the great enrichment of New Englanders, and to some extent of merchants in the Middle States, and to the corresponding enlargement of the American merchant marine. Commercial restrictions then cut in on these profits, although in 1806 the blockade, which excluded Americans and other neutrals from the Seine to Ostend only, was relaxed somewhat. Subsequently, the British Orders in Council of Jan. 7 and Nov. 11, 1807, and Napoleon's Berlin and Milan decrees of Nov. 21, 1806, and Dec. 17, 1807, threatened severe penalties to any neutral venturing into a port of the enemy of either belligerent.

On June 21, 1807 the American warship USS Chesapeake was attacked and boarded on the high seas off Boston by the British warship HMS Leopard (See Chesapeake Affair). Three Americans were dead and 18 wounded; the British impressed four seamen with American papers as alleged deserters. The outraged nation demanded action.[1] and President Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering all British ships out of American waters.

Congress passed a new Embargo Act in December 1807 to stop American outbound traffic. American vessels were prohibited from landing in any foreign port unless specifically authorized by the President himself. Trading vessels were now required to post a bond of guarantee equal to the value of both the ship itself and its cargo, in order to insure compliance with the law.[2] Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin objected because of the administrative nightmare of trying to enforce such a profoundly unpopular policy. "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 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"[3]

In January 1808 Congress acted to close a loophole that coasting vessels, and fishing and whaling boats had not been required to post bonds guaranteeing that they would not sail for foreign ports. [4]

War loomed, but Congress refused Jefferson's request to increase the army to 30,000 troops from 2,800.

By spring 1808 New England ports were nearly shut down, and the regional economy headed into a depression, with growing unemployment. On the Canadian border with New York and Vermont, the embargo laws were openly flouted. By March an increasingly frustrated Jefferson was resolved to enforce the embargo to the letter. In March 1808 Congress prohibited, for the first time, the export of all goods, either by land or by sea.[5] "The Enforcement Act," signed into law on 24 April 1808, was the last of the embargo acts. It decreed that port authorities were allowed to seize cargoes without a warrant, and to bring to trial any shipper or merchant who was thought to have merely contemplated violating the embargo.[6]


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 grabbing at American shipping, labeled "Ograbme".

Case studies

A case study of Rhode Island shows the embargo devastated shipping-related industries, wrecked existing markets, and caused an increase in opposition to the Republican Party. Smuggling was widely endorsed by the public, which 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 US national foreign policy altering local patterns of political allegiance.

Despite its unpopular nature, the Embargo Act did have some limited, unintended benefits, especially as it drove capital and labor into New England textile and other manufacturing industries, lessening America's reliance on the British.[7] 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 drove 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.[8]

The New England merchants who evaded the embargo were imaginative, daring, and versatile. 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 Custom 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.[9]

Repeal 1809

Congress repealed the Act three days before Jefferson left office, replacing it with the Non-Intercourse Act on March 1, 1809, which lifted all embargoes except for those on Britain and France. This act was just as ineffective as the Embargo Act itself and was replaced again the following year with Macon's Bill Number 2, lifting the remaining embargoes. Contemporaries and historians have usually considered the embargo a failure[10] which hurt Americans and did not accomplish its goals, but helped lead to the War of 1812.


  1. McDonald, (1976) p.136
  2. Malone, p. 461
  3. Gallatin to Jefferson, Dec. 1807, in Gallatin (1879) 2:368 online edition
  4. McDonald p. 147
  5. McDonald p 144
  6. Levy, (1973) p. 107
  7. Strum (1994)
  8. Muller (1970)
  9. Gordinier (2001)
  10. But see Frankel (1982)