The Embargo Act of 1807: Thomas Jefferson’s Failed Foreign Relations Policy

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A political cartoon showing merchants dodging the "Ograbme", which is "Embargo" spelled backwards. The embargo was also ridiculed in the New England press as Dambargo, Mob-Rage, or Go-bar-'em.

While the intentions of the act may have been noble, in reality, the embargo act of 1807 meant to hurt the British and the French ended in failure.

The year was 1807

It had been more than twenty years since America had declared her Independence from Great Britain, and the English were understandably still a little bitter about the whole situation. The colonies had, after all, been quite a profitable commodity for them, not to mention a good solid chunk of their empire in terms of land mass.

In addition, The Napoleonic Wars were well underway in Europe, and so the British and the French were at each others’ throats.

Out of this state of affairs came two decisions which affected all Americans. From the British came the Orders in Council, and from the French came Napoleon’s Continental System. Both of these actions contained laws prohibiting trade with the other nation, or any nation who might be friendly to them.

As a result, American shipping to both nations was severely affected, even though she had previously been one of very few absolutely neutral nations in relation to the European conflict.

The Embargo

This is the background to Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, an action considered by some to be one of the worst decisions ever made by a president.

The purpose of the embargo was simple; send a message to the powers in Europe, seeing to it that until the Orders in Council and Continental System were rescinded they would no longer have a loyal customer in America.

In addition, Jefferson hoped that the Act would end British impressment, which occurred when British ships stopped American ships at sea and kidnapped any American sailors whom they suspected to be British citizens forcing them to serve the British navy.

The Act specifically stated that American ships could carry cargo to no foreign port and that foreign ships could not load any cargo in American ports.

Results of the Act

The Act passed through congress by a wide margin in December of 1807 (a month later and it would have forever been known as the Embargo act of 1808), and while it effectively lessened the issue of impressment (mainly because shipping overseas had all but stopped), it also succeeded in immediately driving up the prices of even domestic shipping to an unreasonable rate.

Due to an unusually abundant planting season in Europe the following year, both the English and the French had far less reason than usual to be dependent on American goods, so the Embargo, for the most part, hurt no one but Americans.

Recognizing that the Act had become an unmitigated disaster, congress finally repealed the Act on March 1, 1809, just three days before Jefferson left office, replacing it with a limited embargo on Britain and France.

As James Madison took over as President (after having been Secretary of State under Jefferson, and thus partly responsible for the embargo act), the embargo remained the subject of Anti-Jeffersonian political cartoons. Anti-embargo cartoonists even created a mascot for their cause, a turtle named O-Grab-Me (Embargo, spelled backwards).

With the embargo gone and American ships once again on the high seas, impressment by the British began to occur once again and, coupled with several other issues, led three years later to the bloody War of 1812.

The Embargo Act of 1807 to this day serves as a valuable learning tool for politicians, economists, and students of world affairs to better understand policies and their consequences.