views updated May 09 2018


An embargo, or prohibition of trade with foreign nations, was integral to Jeffersonian Republican commercial policy and diplomacy from 1805 to 1814. The policy evoked heated debates among contemporaries and historians, the latter having variously described it as a form of pacifism, a preparation for war, an agrarian critique of commerce, and an extension of the Jeffersonian Republicans' deep commitment to the carrying trade. Rather than viewing individual measures as the embodiment of a particular worldview, however, the most famous embargoes—restrictions against Haiti in 1805 and 1806 and Jefferson's total Embargo Act of 1807—are best understood within the context of a diverse Jeffersonian Republican coalition acting within precarious geopolitical circumstances.

embargo against haiti

As Haitian revolutionaries fought for their independence from France, President Thomas Jefferson kept a watchful eye on the situation, adjusting economic policy to fit developments. At first, concerns about French designs in North America convinced him to allow the burgeoning American trade to the island to continue. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 reduced these concerns, while the arming of private American vessels elevated the threat of open war against the French naval blockade of the island. News of bloody massacres at the hands of the Haitians heightened racist anxiety about an independent black republic so close to the United States's own slave populations. After first passing trade restrictions in March 1805, in February 1806, to the relief of concerned southerners and the chagrin of northern merchants involved in the Haitian trade, Jefferson and the Republican-controlled Congress refused to recognize the island's independence and prohibited trade to the revolutionaries. Legal trade resumed in the spring of 1810 but with restrictions against Haitian vessels entering the United States. Official recognition did not occur until 1862.

a coercive measure

The impact of the Haitian embargo paled in comparison to Jefferson's more controversial embargo passed by Congress on 22 December 1807. In this instance, Jefferson and Republican loyalists sought to close American markets completely until France or Britain agreed to respect America's neutral commerce. In 1803 the resumption of war between the two rivals had increased European demand for American crops and served as a boon to U.S. commerce. British naval supremacy, especially after the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, left France particularly reliant on American merchants to transport their colonial goods. America's good fortune, however, depended on the willingness of belligerents to allow its ships access to enemy ports.

Good will eroded in early 1806 as the British navy blockaded Continental ports, challenged U.S. involvement in the colonial trade, and increased impressments of American sailors who, Britain suspected, had deserted the Royal Navy. In April, a large congressional majority responded by passing a Non-Importation Act limiting the importation of certain British manufactured goods. The measure remained in effect for only a short time, however, in hopes that James Monroe, minister to Britain, and special envoy William Pinkney could reach a diplomatic settlement. Negotiations led to a draft treaty in December 1806 that appeared to meet many of America's commercial demands but that proved unsatisfactory to the administration and its Republican merchant advisers. Further negotiations between the two nations fizzled in the spring of 1807. In June, tensions heightened when the British frigate Leopard fired on an American warship, the Chesapeake, and forcibly removed four British deserters. In September, reports from France warned of the seizure of American ships suspected of funneling British goods into the Continent in violation of the Emperor Napoleon's 1806 Berlin decree. His Milan Decree of November 1807 confirmed that was French policy. Britain, in turn, responded with Orders in Council requiring neutral nations to stop at British harbors and pay transit fees. When Congress convened in December 1807, the administration contemplated war but ultimately asked members for an embargo to "keep our seamen and property from capture, and to starve the offending nations." Wide majorities in both houses complied.

From the beginning, then, Jefferson's embargo had both defensive and offensive purposes. It kept American vessels and resources out of harm's way, saving them for possible war. At the same time, it withheld American raw materials—especially cotton, timber, and wheat—as leverage to encourage the belligerents to acknowledge America's neutral rights. Smuggling, especially across the Canadian border, undermined the embargo's impact and led to subsequent legislation and executive orders banning trade with Canada and Spanish Florida and giving government officials expansive powers to inspect and seize suspicious vessels. American exports dropped to onefifth of their pre-embargo levels. The coastal trade between states remained legal but large bonds were required. New England Federalists decried the measure as "Francophile" and denounced its heavy-handed enforcement as an egregious abuse of executive power. Joining them were a small number of states'-rights "Old Republicans" like John Randolph who lamented the centralization of authority and the rejection of the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty.

Despite many complaints and some violations, the embargo gained broad public support from a loyal Republican majority—in part because it preserved peace while simultaneously laying the groundwork for possible war. Petitions from Republican strongholds throughout the nation praised the measure, branded opponents as unpatriotic, and anticipated that this form of commercial warfare would win concessions from Europe. Supporters of the act argued that it offered "equal suffering from all"; the nation's diverse agricultural and commercial interests from all regions would share the hardships of protecting national honor and commercial rights.


Everyone did suffer, but to varying degrees. American artisans and nascent manufacturers, especially in mid-Atlantic localities, benefited from a lack of foreign competition. Southern planters and western farmers claimed they suffered the most, being deprived of markets for their crops or access to European finished goods. In all likelihood, however, New England commercial populations of fisherman, sailors, and merchants were hit hardest by the port closures. By late 1808 patience in this region ran out, sparking cries for secession that foreshadowed the Hartford Convention of 1814. In the meantime, initially optimistic reports from Europe about the embargo's impact gave way to more mixed notices, some even suggesting that French and British officials welcomed the policy. Federalist gains in state and national elections in the fall of 1808 suggested that neither the nation nor the Republican Party could bear the sacrifices much longer.

At the behest of northern Republicans, and more reluctantly the outgoing president, Congress backed away from a complete embargo, repealing it for good on 1 March 1809. In its place a Non-Intercourse Act opened trade with neutral nations while continuing the ban on trade with France and Britain. Some southern supporters of the embargo did not let the bill go quietly, however, arguing that Non-Intercourse ended the policy of equal suffering, allowing northern merchants to trade but preventing southern planters access to their chief markets except through expensive, circuitous, and potentially illegal routes. South Carolina representative David Williams and Georgia representative George Troup unsuccessfully lobbied to extend the embargo and, if necessary, declare war. Instead, Congress and the incoming president, James Madison, placed their faith in the assurances of British minister David Erskine, whose diplomatic negotiations had appeared to settle the dispute. In light of these discussions and as an act of further good will, Madison announced the renewal of trade with Great Britain in April 1809. When Westminster refused to accept Erskine's agreement, however, Non-Intercourse was reinstated while Congress began an extended debate on how to proceed. Unable to reach any consensus on a policy that would affect different groups equally, in May 1810 a Congress close to adjournment passed Macon's Bill No. 2, which lifted all trade restrictions against France and Britain while empowering the president to reimpose Non-Intercourse if one of the belligerents lifted its trade restrictions and the other did not do so within the following three months. The measure was so weak it was openly mocked at home and abroad, where it had no impact in changing European policies.

During its fifteen months of enforcement, Jefferson's embargo became paradoxically a symbol of national and party unity and a source of sectional frustration and national weakness. Its negative legacy and lack of success tainted Jefferson's legacy and Republican political economy. Attempts at other forms of economic coercion were equally controversial and unsuccessful. In 1812 the declaration of war against Britain was preceded by a ninety-day embargo. In the summer of 1813 Madison sought a new embargo law, but Congress refused to pass it. Madison succeeded in getting another embargo later in 1813, but it was repealed in the spring of 1814 after Britain and its allies had secured the abdication of Napoleon.

See alsoChesapeake Affair; Haitian Revolution; Hartford Convention; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; Politics: Political Parties; War Hawks; War of 1812 .


Matthewson, Tim. "Jefferson and Haiti." Journal of Southern History 61, no. 2 (May 1995): 209–248.

McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Perkins, Bradford. Prologue to War, 1805–1812. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.

Sears, Louis Martin. Jefferson and the Embargo. 1927. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1978.

Spivak, Burton. Jefferson's English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979.

Brian Schoen


views updated Jun 27 2018


The most comprehensive and controversial economic sanction ever adopted by the United States was the Embargo. Also known as the Long Embargo, this measure was in force from December 22, 1807, to March 1, 1809. Essentially a non-exportation law, the Embargo prohibited American ships and goods from leaving port. It was designed to force Great Britain and France to show greater respect for American rights during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) by depriving them of American trade. Its purpose was also to protect American ships and seamen by keeping them in port. The Embargo failed as a coercive measure, and whatever protection American ships and seamen derived from their forced inactivity was more than offset by the adverse impact that the measure had on American trade and prosperity.

The Embargo was the most ambitious of a series of economic sanctions, collectively known as the restrictive system, adopted prior to the War of 1812. The American colonies had employed non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption in the 1760s and 1770s to force the British to modify their tax and trade policies. Although these measures probably did not play a decisive role in securing a change in policy, American leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison interpreted history otherwise. Convinced that the U.S. held the key to the prosperity of Great Britain and France as well as their West Indian colonies, Republican leaders were determined to protect American rights in the Napoleonic Wars by using the nation's trade as an instrument of foreign policy.

The Embargo was preceded by a partial non-importation law against Great Britain that was enacted in 1806 but was suspended repeatedly until early December 1807. Shortly thereafter, President Jefferson recommended an embargo, and the Republican-controlled Congress complied. This law was followed by four increasingly draconian enforcement acts designed to close loopholes and suppress smuggling.

The Embargo had a disastrous effect on the U.S. economy. Ships were idled in port, and neither merchants nor farmers could get their produce or goods to foreign markets. Domestic exports, which had soared from less than $20 million in 1790 to almost $49 million in 1807, plummeted to $9 million in 1808. Because the nation's economy was so closely tied to the sea, virtually everyone in the U.S. felt the chilling effects of the Embargo. Government revenue, which was derived almost entirely from

taxes on shipping and trade, suffered as well. After increasing from $2 million in 1790 to $17 million in 1808, government income fell to less than $8 million in 1809.

constitutional issues and political dissent

The Embargo also raised serious constitutional issues. There was extensive smuggling, not only on the Atlantic seaboard but also across the Canadian border, where smugglers often clashed with government officials. Although it is unlikely that the suppression of this trade would have rendered the Embargo any more successful, Republicans leaders were willing to push the limits of the Constitution to give the measure every chance.

The administration asked Congress for increasingly broad powers. When Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin told Jefferson that the Embargo could be enforced only if government officials were given powers that were "arbitrary" and "equally dangerous and odious" (Gallatin, July 29, 1808) the president was undeterred. "Congress," Jefferson replied, "must legalize all means which may be necessary to obtain its end " (Jefferson, August 11, 1808). The climax came in 1809 with the fourth and final enforcement act, which gave customs officials sweeping powers and authorized the use of the army and navy to suppress smuggling.

The last enforcement act probably violated the Fourth Amendment guarantee governing search and seizure. In addition, President Jefferson repeatedly exceeded his constitutional authority. He routinely used the army and navy to enforce the law; he claimed that areas where defiance was widespread were in a state of insurrection; he insisted that some smugglers be tried for treason to set an example; and he ordered government officials to ignore a court order that he disagreed with. Enforcing the Embargo showed Jefferson at his worst, determined to go to almost any lengths to bend reality to uphold a flawed ideal that was probably unattainable.

The Embargo also fueled a revival of the Federalist party, which had been in decline ever since the election of 1800 and seemed headed for extinction. Buoyed by rising discontent over the Embargo, the Federalists made significant election gains, especially in New England, where the destruction of shipping and trade caused widespread suffering and extensive economic losses.


In spite of the huge price paid by Americans, the Embargo did not have a significant impact on England or France. Although American commodities became more dear abroad, the effects everywhere were less devastating than U.S. leaders had anticipated. The European belligerents found alternative sources for food and raw materials as well as new markets for their exports. Instead of making concessions to secure an end to the Embargo, Britain welcomed the withdrawal of a commercial rival from the high seas and France used the measure as a pretext for confiscating additional American maritime property.

In March of 1809, after fifteen months of national suffering and on the eve of Jefferson's retirement from office, the Embargo was repealed. Although the Embargo was an obvious failure, most Republicans retained their faith in the restrictive system. The Embargo was succeeded by a non-intercourse act in 1809 and a non-importation act in 1811, but these measures proved no more effective.

Even though the Embargo and its successors were defended as a peaceful alternative to war, Republicans steadily expanded the restrictive system during the War of 1812. The climax came in late 1813, when a second embargo was adopted, one that included all the enforcement machinery of the Long Embargo. This measure was repealed in 1814, when news arrived that Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig had opened all of northern Europe to British trade. At last thoroughly discredited, economic sanctions were not revived as an instrument of foreign policy until the twentieth century, and never again would the nation adopt any restriction that was as comprehensive as the Embargo.


Adams, Henry. History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, (1889–1891), abridged and edited (one volume) by Ernest Samuels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Gallatin, Albert. "Letter to Thomas Jefferson, July 29, 1808." Jefferson Papers. Washington, DC: Library of Congress. Microfilm.

Heaton, Herbert. "Non-Importation, 1806–1812." Journal of Economic History 1 (1941): 178–98.

Jefferson, Thomas. "Letter to Albert Gallatin, August 11, 1808." Jefferson Papers. Washington, DC: Library of Congress. Microfilm.

Jennings, Walter W. The American Embargo, 1807–1809. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1921.

Levy, Leonard W. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. 2d edition. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1973.

Sears, Louis Martin. Jefferson and the Embargo. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1927.

Spivak, Burton. Jefferson's English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979.

Donald R. Hickey

See also:Hartford Convention; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; Monroe, James; Pirates and the Barbary War; Quasi-War and the Rise of Party Politics.


views updated Jun 27 2018


An embargo is a formal policy by a government to prevent the movement of exports either out of its own ports or into another country. It differs from a boycott in that it only involves the interruption of exports, not other financial or commercial transactions. A civil embargo is directed against one's own shippers to prevent them from shipping vital materials to warring nations. A hostile embargo is directed against the economic well-being of a foreign power.

Because of the central role of the U.S. economy in global trade, the United States frequently uses embargoes as effective, nonviolent tools of foreign policy. Although the United States declared its neutrality when Great Britain and France went to war in the early 1800s, both of the warring countries blocked U.S. merchant ships. And in 1807 a British warship killed three U.S. citizens while forcing four British-born "deserters" to rejoin the British Navy. In response, President Thomas Jefferson (18011809) convinced Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807, which banned all U.S. ships from trading in foreign ports. French and British ships continued to attack U.S. ships, however, and the damaging affects on the U.S. economy forced Jefferson to repeal the embargo in 1809. When Great Britain continued violating U.S. neutrality and commandeering U.S. sailors, Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1812 to block all trade between the United States and Great Britain.

During the American Civil War (18611865) the Confederacy considered placing an embargo on cotton shipments to Great Britain, to force Great Britain to enter the war as an ally. The Confederate Congress never passed the embargo, but Confederate state governments and individual citizens imposed a voluntary embargo on cotton exports to England. The British remained neutral throughout the war, and the Southern economy suffered greatly from the North's embargo on exports to the South.

In 1941 the United States imposed an embargo on German, Italian, French, and Danish ships in U.S. ports before it was finally forced to enter World War II (19391945) after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. As a member of the United Nations, the United States used embargoes against North Korea and China during the Korean War (19501953), against Iraq after the Gulf War (1991), and against the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In June 1960 President Dwight D. Eisenhower (19531961) imposed the longest-running embargo in U.S. history by blocking all exports (except food and medicine) to Cuba because of Fidel Castro's (1926) hostile actions against U.S. interests.

See also: Embargo Act, OPEC Oil Embargo


views updated May 18 2018

em·bar·go / emˈbärgō/ • n. (pl. -goes) an official ban on trade or other commercial activity with a particular country: an embargo on grain sales. ∎  an official prohibition on any activity. ∎ hist. an order of a state forbidding foreign ships to enter, or any ships to leave, its ports.• v. (-goes, -goed) [tr.] (usu. be embargoed) impose an official ban on (trade or a country or commodity): the country has been virtually embargoed by most of the noncommunist world. ∎  officially ban the publication of: documents of national security importance are routinely embargoed.


views updated May 29 2018


A proclamation or order of government, usually issued in time of war or threatened hostilities, prohibiting the departure of ships or goods from some or all ports until further order. Government order prohibiting commercial trade with individuals or businesses of other specified nations. Legal prohibition on commerce.

The temporary or permanentsequestrationof the property of individuals for the purposes of a government, e.g., to obtain vessels for the transport of troops, the owners being reimbursed for this forced service.


views updated Jun 08 2018

embargo prohibitory order on the passage of ships; suspension of commerce, etc. XVI (inbargo). — Sp., f. embargar arrest, impede :- Rom. *imbarricāre, f. IM-1 EM1 + barra BAR1.


views updated May 21 2018

embargo Obstruction of the movement of cargo to prevent its delivery. In modern terms, it refers to complete suspension of trade with a country or withholding crucial goods.