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Embargo Acts (1807–1809)

EMBARGO ACTS (1807–1809)

For fifteen months the United States under President thomas jefferson pursued a policy of economic coercion against foreign powers as an alternative to war. In retaliation for attacks on American commerce during the Napoleonic wars, a compliant Congress gave Jefferson everything he requested, including five embargo acts which sought to compel England and France to respect American maritime rights in return for a restoration of American trade. The first three acts, which interdicted that trade, could be constitutionally defended by a doctrine of implied powers that Jefferson once thought inimical to American liberty. In United States v. The William (1808) a federal district court invoked a broad construction of the commerce clause, reinforced by the necessary and proper clause, to justify a ruling that the power to regulate commerce included the power to prohibit it. Justice william johnson of the Supreme Court, a Jefferson appointee, rebuked the President in a circuit case, Gilchrist v. Collector (1808), for having exceeded his statutory authority in enforcing the embargo acts, and another Jefferson appointee, Justice brockholst livingston, in United States v. Hoxie (1808), scathed the President for insinuating the doctrine of constructive treason into a prosecution for violation of the acts. The draconian fourth embargo act carried the administration to the precipice of unlimited enforcement powers and mocked Republican principles by its concentration of authority in the President, its employment of the navy for enforcement, and its disregard of the fourth amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Unconstitutional military enforcement characterized the fifth embargo act, which rivaled any legislation in American history for its suppressiveness. The embargo acts, having failed their purpose, lapsed when Jefferson left office.

Leonard W. Levy

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