Embargoes and Sanctions - The early republic

The Treaty of Amiens (1802) brought a temporary peace to Europe, which allowed President Jefferson to concentrate on domestic programs and to purchase the Louisiana Territory. Then, the Napoleonic Wars resumed, and Jefferson found himself in the same predicament his predecessors had faced. Once again the belligerents interfered with American trade and captured American ships. In the early years of the wars, British offenses were more numerous and blatant than those of the French, often taking place within sight of the American coast and involving the impressment of American seamen and the raiding of U.S. commerce. Jefferson began his program of retaliation with the Nonimportation Act of 1806, barring certain British imports. It was more a gesture to demonstrate American determination on the eve of negotiations than an all-out attempt to coerce Britain, and the Republican negotiators, James Monroe and William Pinckney, did no better than their Federalist predecessor, John Jay. Jefferson and his secretary of state, Madison, rejected the treaty their negotiators sent back from Britain because it failed to prohibit impressment. The envoys were instructed to renegotiate the treaty, eliminating the excessive appeasement of Britain. Such a task, Monroe and Pinckney realized, was hopeless. Meanwhile, another event drove Jefferson and Madison toward stronger measures. On 22 June 1807, a British vessel, the HMS Leopard, fired on an unsuspecting U.S. naval ship, the USS Chesapeake. The British attackers then mustered the crew of the Chesapeake and removed four men who were alleged to be British deserters. This violation of American sovereignty brought a loud outcry even from many Federalists, and Jefferson could easily have had a declaration of war. He delayed six months, until he received news of a British order in council barring all nations from trading with any part of Europe except the Baltic area. At the same time, he learned that France had begun capturing American ships in enforcing Napoleon's Berlin Decree. Jefferson then called upon Congress not for war but for an embargo. He and his followers in Congress defended the move on two separate grounds. On the one hand, it would be a proper precautionary move in case of war; on the other, it might in itself coerce Great Britain. Thus, he appealed to two very different groups. Those who wanted war should have been put on their guard by the fact that the administration secured a rejection of the original plan to embargo foreign as well as domestic ships, and specifically refused to place a time limit on the measure. But the two disparate groups were united for the time being by the ambiguity of the measure. The Senate passed the Embargo Act in a single day in December by a vote of 22 to 6; a few days later the House did the same by a two-to-one margin.

As the months wore on, America's ardor for war cooled. Jefferson was soon left with no alternatives but to continue the embargo as the sole coercive weapon or to abandon the measure entirely, in a humiliating retreat. He decided to continue the embargo. But, as he introduced supplementary measures designed to close loopholes in the law, the Federalists leaped to the attack. Between the embargo and the supplementary laws there was no connection, declared Barent Gardenier, representative from New York. One was a prelude to war, preventing ships from going out and being captured; the other, a measure of coercion in itself. Gardenier and his fellow Federalists insisted that only French influence could inspire so foolish and wicked a measure as a permanent embargo. Jefferson was strong enough in Congress to override these objections and force through stringent enforcement acts, including elaborate bonding procedures, precautionary seizures, and general search warrants. But the unpopularity of the embargo, especially in New England, led to widespread defiance, smuggling, and criticism. As a result, the Federalists' electoral vote in 1808 was triple that of 1804, and their share of the House of Representatives was doubled.

The embargo was no more successful abroad than it was popular at home. France, of course, was unaffected by the embargo, since its trade had already been substantially cut off by the British blockade. British trade was affected. The embargo substantially reduced American exports to Britain, and the Nonimportation Act of 1806, which unlike the embargo was directed explicitly at Great Britain, reduced British exports to the United States. This affected Britain's foreign exchange, and gold began leaving the country. The price of gold rose from 8 shillings per ounce in 1807 to 110 shillings per ounce in 1813, embarrassing the Treasury and precipitating discontent over wages and prices. In most other areas, the Embargo Act and the Nonimportation Act did not wound Britain severely. The stoppage of America's cotton exports was actually welcomed by many British merchants, who had warehouses so full they had been worried about a glut. It did harm many workers in the textile industry, setting off a riot of weavers in Yorkshire; but they were not people with much political leverage.

Meanwhile, the revolutions in Spain and the Spanish colonies in Latin America opened new markets and sources of supply for Britain, which helped compensate for the loss of trade with the United States. The Nonimportation Act of 1806 was no more effective than the embargo, since it exempted cheap textiles and manufactured goods, those things the United States needed most from Britain but also the goods Britain most needed to export. The sight of British ships arriving in American ports with these goods galled the American merchants, whose own ships were rotting at the wharves. They were not much consoled that the embargo forced British vessels to leave in ballast. In the West Indies, too, the embargo failed. It hurt the French West Indies more than the British because the British had ships to supply their islands, while the French did not.

As the failure of the embargo abroad became apparent and disaffection at home continued to rise, the Republicans had to retreat. During Jefferson's lame duck period, he abandoned his direction of Congress, which promptly replaced the Nonimportation Act and the Embargo Act with the Nonintercourse Act of 1809. This act reopened trade with all nations except Britain, France, and their dependencies. But the purposeful vagueness as to just which nations would be considered British or French dependencies, and the lack of a navy to enforce these regulations outside U.S. territorial waters, made the new law an invitation to smuggling. It, too, was soon abandoned and was replaced by Macon's Bill Number Two (1810), throwing trade open to all nations with the promise that the United States would cut off trade with the enemy of any nation that would respect America's neutral rights. When Napoleon promised to respect those rights, Madison, Jefferson's successor, cut off trade with Britain, despite the fact that Napoleon never actually lived up to his promises. When economic weapons again failed to coerce Britain, Madison recommended, and Congress declared, war. Actually, Britain had finally abandoned some of its orders in council before the American declaration. But news of the repeal failed to reach the United States before Congress voted. When the news did arrive, Madison refused to consider peace unless impressment also was eliminated. So the war went on.

Ironically, two months before the United States declared war, Congress had laid yet another embargo on Great Britain. It was specifically a measure to prepare for war, and it expired shortly after the war began. But Madison was not satisfied. He pushed another embargo through Congress in 1813. This had little effect on the southern states because the British were already blockading them; but in New England, which the British left unblockaded as a mark of favor to the section most opposed to the war, the embargo hit hard, increasing discontent and leading to threats of secession. Madison and his followers refused to admit the uselessness of the measure until the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 opened the markets of Europe to the British and destroyed what little leverage the embargo had.

In the euphoria of what Americans considered a victorious and glorious defense against Britain in the War of 1812, the American people nearly forgot the humiliations they had suffered in the commercial warfare period and the early fighting. Republican partisans cast the blame for the failure of the embargo on the Federalists and the New Englanders who had defied the law, saying that only such subversion prevented the measure from coercing Britain. But this rhetoric did not erase America's bitter memories of its attempts at economic sanctions, and it would be many years before the United States tried them again.

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