Embargo Acts - History of Business in the U.S.The Laws: Federal legislation banning American ships from trading with Great Britain, largely to protest British attempts to dominate international waters
Significance: The embargoes created an economic recession, but ultimately American industry became more reliant on the domestic market and less dependent on foreign trade.
When the nineteenth century began, Britain had mobilized to stop Napoleonic France’s increasing control of continental Europe and sought to stop trade with France. British warships overpowered ships of other countries, demanded their surrender, boarded them, seized control, and forced sailors of various nationalities to work against their will until they were released in home ports, penniless.
The United States was at peace with Britain but often accepted British deserters as crew members, and the British sought to recapture these men. In response to high-handed British behavior in international waters to conscript Americans to serve on British ships, Congress in 1806 authorized a limited embargo of British imports.
In 1807, after Britain’s Privy Council demanded an embargo of French ports by all countries, Congress passed an Embargo Act to disallow American ships from trading abroad by requiring that a bond be posted for each ship’s value, subject to forfeit by ships violating the ban. In early 1808, the law was amended to double the value of the bond and to ban trade with Canada. However, shippers refused to comply, so Congress passed a third Embargo Act, increasing penalties and empowering federal port authorities to seize cargos without a warrant, pending a trial of merchants and shipowners on suspicion of contemplating an embargo violation.
The embargo was still flouted, so Congress relented by authorizing President Thomas Jefferson to call off the embargo if conditions improved. He did so in 1809 just before leaving office. Congress then passed the Nonintercourse Act, officially lifting the embargo from all countries but Britain and France. Congress ended the still unpopular embargoes on both countries in 1810, while authorizing the president to reinstitute an embargo if either country reimposed restrictions.
Meanwhile, from1807 to 1812, Britain seized 389 more American trading ships, and 775 additional sailors were forced into British service. Consequently, Congress supported President James Madison’s request for war with Britain, unaware that London had already rescinded orders to conscript foreign sailors.
After the war declaration, British ships attacked American ports during the War of 1812, prompting a full-scale American embargo of Britain in 1813. The final embargo act was repealed in April, 1814, and an Anglo-American peace treaty was signed at the end of that year, though word reached North American after the Battle of New Orleans in early 1815. Meanwhile, Britain had subdued Napoleonic France by April, 1814, and no longer sought extreme measures in international waters.
Craughwell, Thomas J., with M. William Phelps. Failures of the Presidents: From the Whisky Rebellion to the War of 1812 to the Bay of Pigs to the Iran-Contra Affair. Beverly, Mass.: Fair Winds Press, 2008.
Sears, L. M. Jefferson and the Embargo. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1966.
Spivak, Burton. Jefferson’s English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979.
See also: Boston Tea Party; Depression of 1808-1809; European trade with the United States; International economics and trade; Navigation Acts; shipping industry.