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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 On Mar. 1, 1809, the embargo was superseded by the Nonintercourse Act.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 Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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