Embargo Act of 1807

Embargo Act of 1807

Embargo Act of 1807, passed Dec. 22, 1807, by the U.S. Congress in answer to the British orders in council restricting neutral shipping and to Napoleon's restrictive Continental System. The U.S. merchant marine suffered from both the British and French, and Thomas Jefferson undertook to answer both nations with measures that by restricting neutral trade would show the importance of that trade. The first attempt was the Nonimportation Act, passed Apr. 18, 1806, forbidding the importation of specified British goods in order to force Great Britain to relax its rigorous rulings on cargoes and sailors (see impressment). The act was suspended, but the Embargo Act of 1807 was a bolder statement of the same idea. It forbade all international trade to and from American ports, and Jefferson hoped that Britain and France would be persuaded of the value and the rights of a neutral commerce. In Jan., 1808, the prohibition was extended to inland waters and land commerce to halt the skyrocketing trade with Canada. Merchants, sea captains, and sailors were naturally dismayed to find themselves without income and to see the ships rotting at the wharves. All sorts of dodges were used to circumvent the law. The daring attempt to use economic pressure in a world at war was not successful. Britain and France stood firm, and not enough pressure could be brought to bear. Enforcement was difficult, especially in New England, where merchants looked on the scheme as an attempt to defraud them of a livelihood. When in Jan., 1809, Congress, against much opposition, passed an act to make enforcement more rigid, resistance approached the point of rebellion—again especially in New England—and the scheme had to be abandoned. On Mar. 1, 1809, the embargo was superseded by the Nonintercourse Act. This allowed resumption of all commercial intercourse except with Britain and France. Jefferson reluctantly accepted it. Not unexpectedly, it failed to bring pressure on Britain and France. In 1810 it was replaced by Macon's Bill No. 2 (named after Nathaniel Macon), which virtually ended the experiment. It provided for trade with both Britain and France unless one of those powers revoked its restrictions; in that case, the President was authorized to forbid commerce with the country that had not also revoked its offensive measures.

See L. M. Sears, Jefferson and the Embargo (1927, repr. 1967).

The 'Embargo Act" was a series of laws passed by the Congress of the United States between the years 1806-1808, during the second term of President Thomas Jefferson. It was partly brought upon by the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair involving Britain attacking U.S. ships, and partly by Britain prohibiting its trading partners from trading with France. Britain and France were at war; the U.S. was neutral and trading with both sides, although each side tried to hinder American trade with the other. Jefferson's goal was to use economic warfare instead of military warfare to secure the rights of Americans. Initially, these acts sought to punish the United Kingdom for its violations of American rights on the high seas; among these were the impressment of sailors of American ships--sailors who claimed to be American citizens but whom the Royal Navy suspected as deserters. The later Embargo Acts, particularly those of 1807-1808 period, were passed in an attempt to stop Americans and American communities that sought to--or were suspected of intending to--defy the embargo. However, they caused significant economic damage to Americans - exports plummeted from $108 million in 1806 to $22 million in 1808. These Acts were ultimately repealed at the end of Jefferson's second (and last) term. A modified version of these Acts would return for a brief time in 1813 under the presidential administration of Jefferson's successor, James Madison.


On June 21, 1807, in an event known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, the American warship USS Chesapeake was fired upon and boarded near Norfolk by the British warship HMS Leopard. Three Americans were dead and 18 wounded; the British impressed three American seamen and one confirmed British deserter. The outraged nation demanded action, and President Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering all British ships out of American waters.


In response, Congress passed a new Embargo Act on December 18th. Unlike the previous non-importation act, this law was aimed at American shippers and their vessels. The new law required, among other things, that:

  1. American vessels were prohibited from landing in any foreign port unless specifically authorized by the president himself, who, at the time, was Jefferson.
  2. Trading vessels were now required to post a bond of guarantee equal to the value of both the ship and its cargo, in order to insure compliance with the law.

Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin was against the entire notion, foreseeing (correctly, as it turned out) the nightmare of trying to enforce such a policy, not to mention the public's reaction. "As to the hope that it may...induce England to treat us better," wrote Gallatin to Jefferson shortly after the bill had become law, "I think is entirely groundless...government prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than themselves

Gallatin expressed his concerns to no avail.


January 8

On January 8, 1808, within weeks of the first embargo act being law, a second one was passed. As historian Forrest McDonald wrote, "A loophole had been discovered in the first act, namely that coasting vessels, and fishing and whaling boats had not been required to post bonds guaranteeing that they would not sail for foreign ports." The new embargo act now required that all U.S. ships post a bond of twice the value of the ship and cargo. Failure to do so would:

  • Lead to the forfeiture of said ship and cargo
  • Result in "permanent and absolute" refusal in permission to use credit in regard to custom duties
  • Render the oath of the ship's owner and/or captain inadmissible before any customs officer.

Meanwhile, Jefferson requested authorization from Congress to raise 30,000 troops from the current standing army of 2,800. Congress refused. With their harbors for the most part unusable in the winter anyway, New England and the north ports of the mid-Atlantic states, had paid little notice to the previous embargo acts. That was to change with the spring thaw, and the passing of yet another embargo act.

March 12

With the coming of the spring thaw, the effects of the previous acts were immediately felt throughout the coastal states; none more so than in New England with economic downturn devolving into a depression, and spiraling unemployment. While protests up and down the seaboard sprang to life, merchants and shippers simply ignored the laws. On the Canadian border, especially in the area of upstate New York and Vermont, the embargo laws were openly flouted. Federal officials believed parts of Maine such as Passamaquoddy Bay, on the border with British-held New Brunswick, was in open rebellion. By March, an increasingly frustrated Jefferson was resolved to enforce the embargo to the letter.

On March 12, 1808, Congress passed, and Jefferson signed into law, still another embargo act. This one:

1) Prohibited, for the first time, the export of any goods, either by land or by sea.

2) Subjected violators to a fine of $10,000, plus forfeiture of goods, for each offense.

3) Granted the President broad discretionary authority to enforce, deny, or grant exceptions to the embargo.

4) Authorized port authorities to seize cargoes without a warrant, and/or to bring to trial any shipper or merchant who was thought to have merely contemplated violating the embargo.

Still the embargo was ignored, violated, and flouted; still the protests continued and continued to grow; and so it was that the Jefferson administration requested and Congress rendered yet another embargo act.

April 25

On April 25, 1808, Congress passed a proposal that once the wars of Europe were over and the President declared the country sufficiently safe, he would have the power to revoke the act. On March 1, 1809, Jefferson did just that.


The Embargo Act was repealed three days before Jefferson left office, being replaced by the Non-Intercourse Act on March 1, 1809, which lifted all embargoes except for those on Britain and France. This act was just as ineffective as the Embargo Act itself and was replaced again the following year with Macon's Bill Number 2, lifting the remaining embargoes. The entire series of events was ridiculed in the press as Dambargo, Mob-Rage, Go-bar-'em or O-grab-me (embargo spelled backward); there was a cartoon ridiculing the Act as a snapping turtle, dubbed Ograbme, grabbing at American shipping.

A case study of Rhode Island shows the embargo devastated shipping-related industries, wrecked existing markets, and caused an increase in opposition to the Democratic-Republican Party. Smuggling was widely endorsed by the public, which viewed the embargo as a violation of their rights. Public outcry continued, helping the Federalists regain control of the state government in 1808-09. The case is a rare example of US national foreign policy altering local patterns of political allegiance.

Despite its unpopular nature, the Embargo Act did have some limited, unintended benefits, especially as it drove capital and labor into New England textile and other manufacturing industries, lessening America's reliance on the British. In Vermont, the embargo was doomed to failure on the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River water route because of Vermont's dependence on a Canadian outlet for produce. At St. John, Lower Canada, £140,000 worth of goods smuggled by water were recorded there in 1808 - a 31% increase over 1807. Shipments of ashes (used to make soap) nearly doubled to £54,000, but lumber dropped 23% to £11,200. Manufactured goods, which had expanded to £50,000 since Jay's Treaty of 1795, fell over 20%, especially articles made near Tidewater. Newspapers and manuscripts recorded more lake activity than usual, despite the theoretical reduction in shipping that should accompany an embargo. The smuggling was not restricted to water routes, as herds were readily driven across the uncontrollable land border. Southbound commerce gained two-thirds overall, but furs dropped a third. Customs officials maintained a stance of vigorous enforcement throughout and Gallatin's Enforcement Act (1809) was a party issue. Many Vermonters preferred the embargo's exciting game of revenuers versus smugglers, bringing high profits, versus mundane, low-profit normal trade.



  • Pradip Kaplan, Lawrence S. "Jefferson, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Balance of Power." William and Mary Quarterly 1957 14(2): 196-217. ISSN 0043-5597 Fulltext: online at JSTOR.
  • Levy, Leonard W.; Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side, 1963.
  • McDonald, Forrest, The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, (1976)* Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: The Second Term, 1974.
  • Mannix, Richard. "Gallatin, Jefferson, and the Embargo of 1808." Diplomatic History 1979 3(2): 151-172. ISSN 0145-2096
  • Muller, H. Nicholas. "Smuggling into Canada: How the Champlain Valley Defied Jefferson's Embargo." Vermont History 1970 38(1): 5-21. ISSN 0042-4161
  • Sears; Louis Martin. Jefferson and the Embargo, 1927.
  • Smelser, Marshall. The Democratic Republic, 1801-1815, 1968. (ISBN 0-06-131406-4)
  • Smith, Joshua M. “‘So Far Distant from the Eyes of Authority:’ Jefferson’s Embargo and the U.S. Navy, 1807-1809,” in Craig Symonds, ed., New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Twelfth Naval History Symposium (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 123-140
  • Smith, Joshua M. “Murder on Isle au Haut: Violence and Jefferson’s Embargo in Coastal Maine, 1808-1809,” Maine History 39:1 (Spring 2000), 17-40
  • Smith, Joshua M. Borderland Smuggling: Patriots, Loyalists, and Illicit Trade in the Northeast, 1783-1820, 2006.
  • Spivak, Burton; Jefferson's English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution, 1979.
  • Strum, Harvey. "Rhode Island and the Embargo of 1807." Rhode Island History 1994 52(2): 58-67. ISSN 0035-4619

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