Congressional legislation passed on December 22, 1807, in response to the Napoleonic Wars. The Embargo Act (or Non-Importation Act) of 1807 made it illegal for U.S. ships carrying goods destined for foreign ports to leave American harbors. President Thomas Jefferson defended his guidance of the Embargo Act through Congress as an alternative to entering the Napoleonic Wars. The embargo was the president's boldest act in retaliation for French emperor Napoleon I's restrictive Continental System, itself a form of embargo, and the British Orders in Council that restricted neutral shipping and called for the impressment of deserted sailors. As a neutral nation, the United States had found itself hopelessly caught in the middle of total economic warfare between Great Britain and France. It was Jefferson's hope that closing American trade to Europe might produce such harmful economic losses in Britain and France that America's neutrality rights would be restored and respected.
Of the two European nations’ policies, however, it was British actions that generated the greatest uproar and protest among Americans. On April 16, 1806, Congress had passed the Non-Importation Act that was to exclude select imports to the United States, especially products from Britain. But while Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison enumerated the list of prohibited products, they came to realize that Americans depended substantially on British products—more so than the British relied on American goods. As a result, Jefferson delayed the enforcement of the Non-Importation Act.
It was the British practice of impressing American sailors that eventually forced Jefferson to retaliate. On June 22, 1807, the British warship Leopard approached the American frigate Chesapeake just off the Virginia coast. After Commodore James Barron refused a demand by British captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys of the Leopard that his crew be mustered and the British be allowed to search for deserters, the British warship opened fire, killing 3 Americans and wounding 18 others. Barron then surrendered his ship, allowing the impressment of 4 of his crew. Faced with cries for revenge, Jefferson avoided war by pursuing the Embargo Act of 1807.
Unfortunately, the embargo was a dismal failure. First, it unintentionally assisted the British, who now had a freer hand in controlling European trade. Second, American manufacturers and merchants resented the act, as it brought commerce to a virtual halt, and many lost their livelihoods. Initially Jefferson enforced the embargo quite strictly, making arbitrary arrests and seizures of smugglers’ ships. In some areas such as New England, opposition to the embargo became extremely intense, almost teetering on rebellion. Eventually Jefferson abandoned enforcement in New England before ultimately admitting defeat and repealing the act amid intense congressional pressure during the concluding days of his presidency in 1808.
A new embargo—the Non-Importation Act of 1809, which prohibited British and French ships and goods from U.S. ports—replaced the old embargo on March 1, 1809. This legislation also failed, resulting in Macon's Bill No. 2 (1810). That bill reopened American ports to British and French trade but promised an economic embargo against one country if the other restored its trade with the United States and recognized American neutrality rights. Neither of these later efforts eased the nation's economic dislocations or averted war, however. By the spring of 1812, many Americans—particularly Democratic-Republicans—had concluded that diplomacy and trade sanctions had failed and that war with Great Britain was the only course of action.
Causes of the War of 1812; Chesapeake-Leopard Affair; Continental System; Diplomacy, U.S.; Economy, U.S.; France; Great Britain; Impressment; Jefferson, Thomas; Macon's Bill No. 2; Madison, James; Napoleonic Wars; Non-Importation Acts of 1806 and 1811; Orders in Council; Trade
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