Embargo Act of 1807

Date 12/22/1807


On June 21, 1807, in an event known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, the American frigate USS Chesapeake was fired upon and was boarded near Norfolk by the British warship HMS Leopard. Three Americans were killed and 18 wounded in the battle. The British impressed three American seamen and one confirmed British deserter: Jenkin Ratford, who had deserted from HMS Halifax. The United States became outraged and demanded immediate action; consequently, President Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering all British ships out of American waters, later enacting the Embargo Act.



On December 22, 1807, in response to British impressment and other aggressive behavior towards the United States, Congress passed a new Embargo Act. The new law required, among other things, that:

American vessels were prohibited from landing in any foreign port unless specifically authorized by the president himself, who, at the time, was Jefferson.

Trading vessels were now required to post a bond of guarantee equal to the value of both the ship and its cargo, in order to ensure compliance with the law.

The plan ended up being a financial disaster seeing that the British were still able to export goods to America. Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin was against the entire notion, foreseeing (correctly, as it turned out) the nightmare of trying to enforce such a policy, not to mention the public's reaction. "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 than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than themselves."

Even so, the law stood.


January 8

On January 8, 1808, within weeks of the first embargo act being a law, a second one was passed. As historian Forrest McDonald wrote, "A loophole had been discovered in the first act, namely that coasting vessels, and fishing and whaling boats had not been required to post bonds guaranteeing that they would not sail for foreign ports." The new embargo act now required that all U.S. ships post a bond of twice the value of the ship and cargo. Failure to do so would:

Lead to the forfeiture of said ship and cargo

Result in "permanent and absolute" refusal in permission to use credit in regard to custom duties

Render the oath of the ship's owner and/or captain inadmissible before any customs officer.

Meanwhile, Jefferson requested authorization from Congress to raise 30,000 troops from the current standing army of 2,800. Congress refused. With their harbors for the most part unusable in the winter anyway, New England and the north ports of the mid-Atlantic states had paid little notice to the previous embargo acts. That was to change with the spring thaw, and the passing of yet another embargo act.

March 12

With the coming of the spring , the effects of the previous acts were immediately felt throughout the coastal states, none more so than in New England with economic downturn devolving into a depression, and spiraling unemployment. While protests up and down the eastern coast sprang to life, most merchants and shippers simply ignored the laws. On the Canadian border, especially in upstate New York and Vermont, the embargo laws were openly flouted. Federal officials believed parts of Maine, such as Passamaquoddy Bay, on the border with British-held New Brunswick, were in open rebellion. By March, an increasingly frustrated Jefferson was resolved to enforce the embargo to the letter.

On March 12, 1808, Congress passed and Jefferson signed into law yet another embargo act. This one:

Prohibited, for the first time, the export of any goods, either by land or by sea.

Subjected violators to a fine of $10,000, plus forfeiture of goods, for each offense.

Granted the President broad discretionary authority to enforce, deny, or grant exceptions to the embargo.

Authorized port authorities with the ability to seize cargoes without a warrant and/or[clarification needed] to bring to trial any shipper or merchant who was thought to have merely contemplated violating the embargo.

Still the embargo was ignored, violated, and flouted; still the protests continued and continued to grow; and so it was that the Jefferson administration requested and Congress rendered yet another embargo act.

April 25

On April 25, 1808, Congress passed a proposal that once the wars of Europe were over and the President declared the country sufficiently safe, he would have the power to revoke the act. On March 1, 1809, Jefferson did just that. Even after the repeal however, U.S ships could trade legally with all nations except Britain and France.


A political cartoon showing merchants dodging the "Ograbme", which is 'Embargo' spelled backwardsIt was repealed three days before Jefferson left office, being replaced by 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. 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, dubbed 'Ograbme', grabbing at American shipping.

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. 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 catsoap) 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 driven 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.