Why was the Embargo Act of 1807 a failure for President Thomas Jefferson?

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Thomas Jefferson

The Embargo Act of 1807 was an effort by President Thomas Jefferson to keep the United States out of European wars that had been waged since 1803. In Europe, Napoleon was sweeping across the continent, and almost every European power was aligned against France. Initially, the United States sought to continue trade with Europe, but France and Britain refused to acknowledge the United States' neutrality.

Soon, Britain began attacking US merchant ships and impressing United States merchant sailors into the British navy. To limit United States involvement in the European conflicts, Jefferson decided to close United States ports to all foreign trade. Instead of engaging with Europe, Jefferson essentially withdrew.

His effort to remain neutral in the face of European warfare was noble but ultimately failed to accomplish his goal. Not only did American traders flout the blockade by smuggling goods in and out of the United States, but before his presidency ended Jefferson reluctantly rescinded the embargo and allowed trade between the United States and all other foreign countries excluding Britain and France.

Why did France and Britain Declare War in 1803?

In 1802, the Treaty of Amiens was signed by France, Spain, Britain, and the Batavian Republic. The Treaty sought to bring peace to warring European powers by reorganizing numerous colonies, territories, and regions to end the conflict over these regions. The Treaty of Amiens was a failure. The parchment was barely dry when multiple parties began to violate the terms of the treaty. The biggest disagreement was caused by France's unwillingness to negotiate a trade agreement with Britain. The failure to come to terms on a deal encouraged Britain to take a hardline with France.

Ultimately, due to Britain's unhappiness with France's adherence to the Treaty, it decided to retain control of Malta in direct violation of the Treaty. While Britain clearly violated the treaty, neither France nor Britain appeared to be particularly interested in preserving the peace between them. France quickly took several over several cities in violation of the treaty including Hanover and Naples. Napoleon even began toying with the idea of invading Britain. With these actions, the Treaty was officially dead and hostilities between France and Britain would start again.

Why did France and Britain interfere with American trading ships at sea?

The HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake by W. Elmes, 1813

During the conflict between Britain and France, the United States remained neutral. President Thomas Jefferson wanted to maintain the United States' neutrality to continue trading with Europe. Over the next four years, tensions with Britain and France ramped up as both countries refused to honor the US's neutral status. Both countries boarded American merchant ships, impressed sailors, and searched their cargo.

By 1807, the British had become increasingly bold and attacked an American Navy ship, the USS Chesapeake, just of the coast of Virginia. The British ship was allegedly looking for British deserters, but this was part of Britain's effort to harass American shipping. Britain had already banned the United States from trading with France and its colonies.

The HMS Leopard fired on the Chesapeake and killed three American sailors. Additionally, the British board the ship and seized four American sailors. This attack differed from previous engagements because the Chesapeake was not a merchant ship, but a ship the United States Navy. This incident ratcheted up the potential for conflict between the United States and Britain.

What was the goal of the Embargo Act of 1807?

Instead of escalating the conflict with the Crown, Jefferson sought to end any tensions by ending all trade with all foreign nations. This Embargo closed US ports to foreign ships and even ended overland trade with Canada. Congress supported this move and hoped it would prevent America from being dragged into an out of control European conflict.

While Jefferson may have hoped to ease tensions, American traders quickly began flouting the Act. Initially, the Embargo was respected by American business, but over time the cost of the act escalated. This encouraged American smugglers to began moving the goods back and forth through Canada. The Embargo Act became increasingly unpopular and Jefferson's efforts to enforce the act against Americans became increasingly severe. Despite these increasingly harsh efforts, Americans began openly violating the Act. The heart of the rebellion against Jefferson was in New England. Northern traders were remarkably successful at evading the laws by either co-opting customs officials. Even if people were arrested by the federal government for violating the Act, juries in New England were acquitted the defendants.

Jefferson's act essentially interfered with one of the original rationales for the American Revolution: the support of free trade. Instead of working with Americans who defied the act, Jefferson accused them of disloyalty and focused on enforcement. Jefferson was utterly incapable of rethinking the Act that quickly became a flashpoint in American politics. Americans were angry with Jefferson, but he refused to listen.

Did the Embargo of 1807 diminish Jefferson's Reputation?

By 1809, Jefferson was forced to not only admit that the Embargo was a failure but Republicans eventually came out against the policy. In response, Congress passed the Non-Intercourse Act which limited trade to only Britain and France. The Non-Intercourse could barely be described as a restraint on trade to Britain and France. It would be relatively easy to ship American goods to a third party state and then send them to France or Britain. That's exactly what happened.

Ultimately, Jefferson refused to run for a third term as President, and his chosen successor, James Madison, was elected President. Jefferson was happy to leave the presidency and never returned to Washington.

Unfortunately, the United States was soon drawn into another conflict with Britain by 1812. The same pressures that existed in 1807 were magnified in 1812. Republican Nationalist fervor pushed the country into war with Britain. The War of 1812 was ultimately a debacle for both the British in the United States. While Britain humiliated the US by occupying Washington DC and burning down a number of buildings that comprised the United States government, Britain's campaign in the United States was a mess. Britain was met with several military defeats and ended leaving the United States with its tail between its legs. The Treaty of Ghent provided an end to hostilities between the countries but neither side was happy.

The entire purpose of the Embargo was to demonstrate that there was potentially a new way to respond to aggressive warring European powers. That effort failed. Jefferson proved incapable of limiting smuggling by Americans that undermined his Embargo. Even though Southerners typically respected the Embargo, the failure to limit smuggling in the North hobbled the Embargo Act. Jefferson had essentially achieved all of the legislative goals he sought to accomplish during his Administration and the Embargo Act was one of his few clear failures.