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Jefferson’s Embargo Act and the Depression of 1807-11


For the past couple of posts, we have been discussing issues met by our nation as we tried to expand westward over the Appalachian Mountains and came into conflict with Native Americans who already considered that land as their own. These issues, in which England was inevitably involved, raised tensions between our two countries. Tensions that would eventually help to bring our two nations into conflict in the War of 1812. In the next couple of articles, we are going to look at other issues, these primarily on the Atlantic seaboard, which would also raise tensions and combine with the frontier problems to finally push America into conflict with England.

This week’s article examines a prime example of unintended consequences and poorly thought-out policies backfiring on to the United States and doing more damage here than to the intended targets. Let's explore the Embargo Act of 1807, its successors the Non-importation Act and Macon’s Bill #2, and the impact that these laws had on the British, French, and US economies.

The Embargo Act, the Non-intercourse Act, and Macon’s Bill #2.

The impetus for the Embargo Act of 1807 had its roots in issues that began years before. The Mississippi River, and its outlet to the Gulf of Mexico were vital to the export of commodities produced in the interior of the United States. In fact, by 1800, even though we did not control it, New Orleans was the most important port for America with three-eighths of US foreign trade passing through it.

As we have seen in earlier articles on Spanish Interference in the Mississippi Valley and French attempts to influence American actions toward England, free access to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans had been a point of contention since the end of the American Revolution. Then, in 1800, Americans received the news that France, under Napoleon’s leadership, had taken Spain and thereby secured New Orleans well as the vast territories west of the Mississippi River. In reaction to this Jefferson sent James Monroe to negotiate a treaty with France hoping to avoid a conflict over New Orleans. Monroe was instructed to offer no more than $10 million for New Orleans and its immediate environs and, if France refused, Monroe was to go to England and negotiate an alliance against France. Fortunately, Monroe never had to approach the British. A slave rebellion in Haiti, followed by a yellow fever outbreak, caused Napoleon to offer to sell, in what became known as the Louisiana Purchase, not only New Orleans but also all the French territory west of the Mississippi River.

James Monroe
James Monroe

Meanwhile, the wars raging between France and Great Britain, were severely testing the diplomatic neutrality of the United States. The wars in Europe had increased demand for products from the United States: exports of grain, naval stores, and cotton, to both sides of the conflict, rose dramatically. With expanded exports, American merchant fleets grew and expanded their world presence.

After the Royal Navy’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 decimated the French navy, England turned to destroying the French economy through a vigorous blockade. Hoping to limit French access to supplies, the British placed restrictions on goods shipped to European ports and nations wishing to trade with Europe were expected to follow these restrictions. Failure to do so placed the ship in jeopardy of confiscation of ships and property by the Royal Navy.

In retaliation, France issued the Berlin Decree in 1806. This formally proclaimed a blockade against Great Britain. Any goods manufactured in England or its colonies, no matter the owner, would be considered a fair prize of war. The Berlin Decree said that "No vessel coming directly from England, or any of its colonies, or having touched there since the publication of the present decree, shall be received into any harbor."

This resulted in Britain issuing The Order in Council on January 7, 1807, which proclaimed the following:

. . . it is hereby ordered, that no vessel shall be permitted to trade from one port to another, both which ports shall belong to, or be in the possession of France or her allies, or shall be so far under their control as that British vessels may not freely trade thereat; and the commanders of his majesty's ships of war and privateers shall be, and are hereby instructed to warn every neutral vessel coming from any such port, and destined to another such port, to discontinue her voyage, and not to proceed to any such port; and any vessel, after being so warned, or any vessel coming from any such port after a reasonable time shall have been afforded for receiving information of this his majesty's orders which shall be found proceeding to another such port, shall be captured and brought in, and together with her cargo, shall be condemned as lawful prize.

This was followed by a second edict in November of the same year:

. . . And whereas his majesty's order of the 7th of January last has not answered the desired purpose, either of compelling the enemy to recall those orders, or of inducing neutral nations to interpose, with effect, to obtain their revocation; but, on the contrary, the same have been recently enforced with increased rigour:

And whereas his majesty, under these circumstances, finds himself compelled to take further measures for asserting and vindicating his just rights, and for supporting that maritime power which the exertions and valour of his people have, under the blessing of Providence, enabled him to establish and maintain; and the maintenance of which is not more essential to the safety and prosperity of his majesty's dominions, that it is to the protection of such states as still retain their independence, and to the general intercourse and happiness of mankind:

His majesty is therefore pleased, by and with the advice of his privy council, to order, and it is hereby ordered, that all the ports and places of France and her allies, Or of any other country at war with his majesty, and all other ports or places in Europe, from which, Although not at war with his majesty, the British flag is excluded, and all ports or places in the colonies belonging to his majesty's enemies, shall, from henceforth be subject to the same restrictions in point of trade and navigation, with the exception hereinafter-mentioned, as if the same were actually blockaded by his majesty's naval forces, in the most strict and rigorous manner; - And it is hereby further ordered and declared, that all trade in articles which are of the produce or manufacture of the said countries or colonies, shall be deemed and considered to be unlawful; and that every vessel trading from or to the said countries or colonies, together with all goods and merchandize on board, and all articles of the produce or manufacture of the said countries or colonies, shall be captured, and condemned as prize to the captors.

One of the most important aspects of the Orders in Council was the statement that nations wishing to trade with closed ports must first pay transit duties to the British government. This “tax” was something that US Merchants objected to strongly. They argued that as neutral parties, they should be free to trade with whomever they wished, and they should not be subject to taxes by one belligerent to trade with other countries.

A retaliatory measure to Britain's Orders in Council was the Milan Decree, issued in 1807 by Napoleon. It declared that:

Every ship, to whatever nation it may belong, that shall have submitted to be searched by an English ship, or to a voyage to England, or shall have paid any tax whatsoever to the English government, is thereby, and for that alone, declared to be denationalized, to have forfeited the protection of its king, and to have become English property.

Whether the ships thus denationalized by the arbitrary measures of the English government, enter into our ports, or those of our allies, or whether they fall into the hands of our ships of war, or of our privateers, they are declared to be good and lawful prizes.

This placed the American merchantmen in an even more impossible situation. If they chose to follow English law, they were subject to having their ships seized and their cargos taken by the French. If, on the other hand, they followed France’s wishes they were faced with the same situation at the hands of the English.

President Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson

President Jefferson, who was desperately trying to keep the United States from becoming involved in the European Wars, responded to the infringement on American trade with an economic option to assert American rights, the Embargo Act of 1807. The act targeted Great Britain, whose strong navy was much more effective in stopping American trade than the French. Referring to the act as it was directed toward England, Secretary of State James Madison wrote:

"We send necessaries to her. She sends superfluities to us. Our products they must have. Theirs, however promotive of our comfort, we can to a considerable degree do without."

The act restricted American shipping to coastal trade and, in an attempt to compel compliance with this limitation, vessels were required to post a bond for twice the value of their cargo as a guarantee that the vessel was not headed for a foreign port.

The Embargo Act was repealed in March 1809 as the negative effects of its broad prohibitions on trade were severely felt by the United States. It was replaced by the Non-Intercourse Act just 16 days before the end of Jefferson’s term. This new act restricted trade to England and France and their respective colonies but allowed for trade with all other nations. The act also provided that if either England or France repealed its restrictive trade policies, the Non-Intercourse Act would be lifted as it pertained to that country. Like its predecessor, the Embargo Act, it was mostly ineffective, and contributed to the coming of the War of 1812. In addition, it continued to seriously damage the economy of the United States.

Realizing that the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 was not having the desired effect, Congress passed what is known as Macon’s Bill Number 2 on May 14, 1810. The Bill was intended to motivate Great Britain and France to stop seizing American vessels. This bill, a revision of the original bill by Representative Nathaniel Macon, known as Macon's Bill Number 1, was neither written nor approved by Macon. The law lifted all embargoes with Britain and France (for three months). It stipulated that, if either one of the two countries ceased attacks upon American shipping, the United States would end trade with the other, unless that other country agreed to recognize the rights of the neutral American ships as well. Ironically, Macon did not vote in favor of the finished draft of the bill.

Napoleon at once saw a chance to exploit this bill to further his Continental Plan, a form of economic warfare he believed would destroy Britain's economy. He had a message sent to the United States, saying that the rights of the American merchant ships as neutral carriers would be recognized. President James Madison, a staunch opponent of the bill, grudgingly accepted Napoleon's offer. However, Napoleon had no intention of ever following through on his promise, and Madison, who soon realized this, did not relax the ban on trade with France.

The British however, were offended by the agreement and threatened the use of force of arms, thus motivating Napoleon to withdraw altogether. However, much to Napoleon's plan, the damage to US/British relations had been done and tensions increased. Soon the U.S. and Britain were entangled in the War of 1812 due to the continued harassment of American ships and escalating tensions between the United States and the nations of Europe.

The consensus among historians is that this bill was effectively useless, since the European economies (under Napoleon) played upon the weaknesses this bill created. As a result, the bill's restrictions were never enforced due to Madison's reaction to France's attempted manipulations.

Effects on the British, French, and US Economy

Although during the Napoleonic Wars prices in France and England prices rose and supplies shrank for many commodities, there is little evidence to suggest that it was due to the American embargos. Both France and England had other markets from which to obtain goods and began replacing the embargoed United States trade: England with goods from India, Central and South America, while the French gathered items from throughout their conquered territories, as well as their colonies. As the U.S. minister to France said at one point, "Here it is not felt, and in England . . . it is forgotten."

The embargo proved more detrimental to the United States than to its intended victims. The nation fell into a depression worse than any experienced since the early colonial days. Farm prices fell sharply, shippers suffered, harbors filled with idle ships, and nearly 30,000 sailors found themselves jobless.

Political Cartoon of Jefferson Defending his Embargo
Political Cartoon of Jefferson Defending his Embargo

Jefferson, relying on his experience with the non-importation agreements during the American Revolution, believed that Americans would cooperate with the embargo out of a sense of patriotism. Instead, smuggling flourished, particularly through Canada. To enforce the embargo, Jefferson took steps that infringed on his most cherished principles: individual liberties and opposition to a strong central government. He mobilized the army and navy to enforce the blockade, and declared the Lake Champlain region of New York, along the Canadian border, in a state of insurrection.

Economists, using statistics from the period, estimate that around 100,000 men lost their jobs due to trade restrictions. While this does not appear to be an enormous number, based upon a labor force of around 2.3 million, we must remember that a large majority of Americans in the early 19th century were employed in agricultural pursuits which continued, at least on a subsistence level. Understanding this, we see that the actual job losses for “hired” individuals such as sailors, shopkeepers, tradesmen, transportation workers, longshoremen, day laborers and such would have been exceptionally high.

New England was hit hardest by the embargo since it was a region heavily involved in international commerce. Other commercial cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, also suffered from the embargo. Overall, American trade declined by up to 75 percent for exports and 50 percent for imports. The embargo had less of an impact in the middle states, the frontier, and the South, however, in the major seaports, and in those areas growing substantial amounts of wheat and corn for export it still hit hard.

Maine Coast - Ideal for Smuggling
Maine Coast - Ideal for Smuggling

In the District of Maine, a political subdivision of Massachusetts at that time, many of the residents made their living either directly through foreign trade, through the production of export goods, or shipbuilding. The Embargo heavily affected all these pursuits. Residents of this area had built up a thriving trade in exports such as lumber, fish, potash, beef, pork, com, flour, and a small quantity of manufactured products. There was also a thriving trade in imports from the West Indies and Europe such as manufactured articles, salt, iron, and hemp.

As a result of the embargo, at least sixty percent of the people in seaport towns found themselves unemployed. Every man who had anything to do, directly or indirectly, with the building or lading of ships - carpenters, blacksmiths, lumber­men, sailors, clerks, merchants, teamsters, farmers - was suddenly deprived of a livelihood. The people of the district found it hard to accept the fact that their ships must remain idle in the harbors. Some, tempted by the large profits that could be made in the West Indies, defied the embargo. As soon as news of the embargo reached the West Indies prices doubled and tripled on American produce. For example, flour jumped to twenty-five dollars a barrel and potatoes to $7.50 a barrel.

Maine was also ideally suited for smuggling into and out of Canada because of its many harbors and islands. One common way of avoiding the embargo was to load the ship at night and sail before dawn thus being out of reach of US Government officials by dawn. Portland was especially guilty of this offence. Another method, this one used by fishermen, was that instead of bringing home their catch from the Newfoundland Banks, they dried their cod on the shores of Newfoundland and then sailed directly to European ports, such as Portugal, where they made a handsome profit. The Town of Eastport Maine, only few miles from Canada, became one of the busiest towns in America with as much as 30,000 barrels of flour smuggled to Canada from there in a week. A barrel of flour that in the US brought only five dollars, sold for twelve dollars in Canada just a few miles away.

Smugglers Loading a Ship
Smugglers Loading a Ship

A contemporary account by a man visiting the city in 1808 gives a picture of the economic effects of the embargo on Portland:

Commerce and commercial men, and consequently with very minute exceptions, the whole population of Portland, was at this time in very distressful circumstances, consequent on the political state of the country. Solidity of capital is at all times out of the question in Portland; its whole trade is dependent either upon borrowed funds, and funds borrowed at an interest often, of 18 and even 20 per centum. . .

Under such circumstances, a stagnation in trade is ruin and, having occurred, the prospects of Portland were now of the gloomiest kind. Many business failures had already taken place and others were expected to follow. Shipping tonnage reported to customs in Maine dropped from 145,066 tons in 1807 to 134,271 tons in 1808, about 7.5%

Maine agriculture was also affected by the embargo. Many farmers found themselves with large surpluses on hand when the embargo went into effect because the high profits of recent years had stimulated overproduction. With large supplies on hand, and no way to transport them to the customary markets, the farmers found themselves with a severe problem. To add to the problem farm prices fell as the embargo caused unstable economic conditions.

Maine’s vast tracts of virgin timber made it a leading lumber producer at the time of the embargo. Because of the great quantity of lumber produced, and the small amount consumed within the District, Maine was the principal lumber shipper in the United States. When the embargo went into effect, lumbermen found themselves with no markets for their product. The result was economic distress in towns dependent on the lumber industry.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, the Embargo Act, and its successors the Non-Intercourse Act and Macon’s Bill #2, also brought decreased international trade, resulting in job losses, business failures, and economic and political strain at all levels of society. It not only affected Virginians directly involved in international trade, but also farmers who depended on grain and tobacco sales to Europe, as well as merchants and lawyers reliant upon farmers as customers.

Beginning in 1793, the European wars had created an overseas demand for Virginia’s wheat, corn, tobacco, and other agricultural products. For example, between 1790 and 1810, corn and flour exports increased 145 percent and 960 percent, respectively. Virginia’s principal port, Norfolk, also profited from the grain trade. Norfolk merchants bought the wheat and tobacco which was milled and cured in Richmond and Petersburg. The Tidewater also contributed to Norfolk’s business because plantations sent all the tobacco, grown south of the Rappahannock, to the city. Because Virginia millers could not produce flour as fine as northern millers could, many planters sent their wheat to Norfolk for shipment to Pennsylvania and New York mills.

Map of Norfolk, VA in 1802
Map of Norfolk, VA in 1802

Norfolk merchants’ trade with the West Indies expanded during the European wars. Virginians sold corn, lumber, and tobacco at lower prices than northern merchants. The number of vessels owned by Norfolk citizens expanded from negligible in 1785 to 120 vessels totaling 23,207 tons in 1806. Shipbuilding in the area quickly increased to supply the demand. Carpenters had to construct ships along the shore and in creeks because they could not find working space along the crowded wharves. International trade made Norfolk a busy, turbulent city.

This prosperity led to the development of agricultural support services and commerce dependent upon agricultural exports. Unfortunately, diversification of Virginia’s economy toward large-scale manufacturing had not occurred. This reliance on agricultural exports made Virginia vulnerable to the embargo’s economic effects. Between October 1802 and September 1807, Virginia exported an average of 986,000 barrels of flour a year to both foreign and domestic ports, but from October 1807 to September 1808 Virginians exported only 263,800 barrels (a seventy-two percent decrease from the earlier average). Corn exports experienced an even more severe drop during the embargo, falling to 249,500 bushels, down ninety-one percent from the 1802-1807 average. By late January 1808, the people of Norfolk would only buy tiny amounts of goods that they could consume at home, instead of copious quantities for trading. Planters could not sell one thousand barrels of flour at a time, even for four dollars fifty cents per barrel, and naval and lumber stores would not fetch any price whatsoever because no one needed those items at home.

Just as with Maine, the embargo proved ineffective at totally halting international trade as some Virginians took advantage of the deflated price of goods (especially flour) in the United States and the inflated price in Britain’s possessions, to smuggle goods to English controlled ports. As mentioned earlier, in the West Indies where the inhabitants did not raise their own grains and relied on American supplies, prices soared. The Virginia Argus reported that traders in Havana would pay twenty-four dollars per flour barrel, eighteen dollars at Port Maria, Jamaica, and fourteen dollars at St. Croix. At the same time, merchants could buy flour at four dollars a barrel in Richmond. However, even considering the smuggling that took place, it seems unlikely that it had much of an impact on the deficit of exports the embargo caused or in the economic depression that Virginia faced.

The decline in shipping, legal and illegal, directly affected one group of Virginians at once: sailors. On February 11, 1808, only eight weeks after the passage of the embargo, the seamen in Alexandria petitioned President Jefferson for help. "The situation of many of the seamen in this port is truly distressing as they have no means to procure money even to pay their board," declared Henry Moore of Alexandria.

Early 19th Century Soup Kitchen
Early 19th Century Soup Kitchen or "Victualing House"

In Norfolk, because sailors suddenly could not find work, the residents tried to aid the unemployed. In early March, a meeting had been called to consider raising money to send indigent seamen to Washington to find work, but not enough people attended. Despite a petition to Norfolk residents by "sundry seamen of Norfolk" following the failed meeting, a month passed before the Thespian Society set up a "Victualling House" to feed the Norfolk poor. The situation proved so desperate that within a few days the society had spent more than half of its 1200 dollars in contributions on house rents, clothing, provisions, and medicines.

The embargo also affected merchants, if not so severely as the seamen they employed. In Norfolk, St. George Tucker took the precaution of quarterly collecting rent from his merchant tenants on Campbell’s Wharf instead of half- yearly because of "the unfavorable aspect of our public affairs, & the embargoed situation of our commerce." By early January, Dr. Barraud glumly reported that in Norfolk "there was nothing doing in the world of Business but a few attempts to smuggle Cargoes of Flour & Provisions." Thomas Rutherfoord, a Richmond merchant, and flour miller later remembered the summer of 1808 as a period "during which I had been much more at leasure than I had been for many years before," and spent the many months with his family visiting friends.

Since the embargo act required that any foreign vessel that entered an American port could not leave with items grown or produced in the United States, forcing an unprofitable return voyage with only ballast, it had the effect of indirectly reducing imports. Thus, the prices of imported articles rose in Virginia just as Virginians found their incomes restricted by the embargo. Many Virginians reacted to the decline in their income and to the perceived threat from Great Britain by supporting household manufactures, the production of clothing at home instead of buying it from importers, as both a measure of self-reliance and a patriotic gesture of defiance. Just prior to the embargo, Virginians who made their own fabrics consisted of the poor, the enslaved, and those who lived far away from places where merchants easily imported cloth.

Home Manufacture of "Virginia Cloth"
Home Manufacture of "Virginia Cloth"

A writer under the pseudonym "Farmer" called for neighborhoods to create associations that would enforce a boycott of British products and encourage American manufactures in their place. "Farmer" believed that virtue and self-denial were necessary for the success of the plan but pointed out that the glut of buckles that resulted from American fashions changing to shoelaces revealed a British Achilles heel. He looked forward to the day when "Americans clad in homespun will not be held in such contempt as they are at present." That day was not long in coming. Throughout Virginia's tidewater and piedmont, citizens resolved to appear in American-made clothing for Independence Day celebrations.

Another response to the embargo was a much more ambitious and publicized project that combined patriotism and personal profit for wealthy Virginians: manufacturing. Specifically, textile production in large factories. By 1808, Americans had mechanized many, but not all, of the processes involved in creating cotton and woolen textiles. The cotton gin which mechanically removed cotton fibers from the seeds was already common. Several factories, mostly in New England, harnessed waterpower to spin the fibers into thread, but cloth manufacturers still had to rely on hand looms for weaving the finished cloth. Woolen production likewise had not yet reached the mechanized weaving stage, but the carding, spinning, and fulling steps could be performed utilizing waterpower. Wool factory owners had to employ skilled operators because the production of wool involved a more complex process than cotton did.

Spinning mills, on the other hand, needed large investments: one hundred cotton spindles alone cost about two thousand dollars in 1808, not counting the factory building, land, dam for waterpower, or raw materials. Before 1808 only fifteen such mills existed in the United States, all in New England. In 1808 leading men in Halifax and Surry Counties, and the cities of Petersburg and Richmond, formed associations with the goal of setting up factories that could spin cotton and wool. Except for Surry County, these areas all had the waterfalls necessary for powering textile mills—a factor that restricted the areas where manufacturing could spread.

Virginians showed their enthusiasm for manufacturing, but despite their ardor, they lacked knowledge about spinning mills. Most of their information initially came from newspaper articles about the organization of associations in the North and the associations’ profit estimates. This ignorance did not bode well for the Virginia associations as they began creating corporations and subscribing money without any concrete knowledge of the process and expenses involved in creating their products.

Not surprisingly, the Richmond and the Halifax associations never built their factories. The lack of specialized knowledge may have stopped the Halifax group, while the Richmond society quietly dissolved during autumn, apparently because the members did not subscribe the seventy-five thousand dollars of shares the society’s guidelines stipulated before the society could begin operations. The Petersburg Manufacturing Society, on the other hand, did achieve a measure of success. By November 1809, the society began running a cotton spinning mill on a site about three miles below Petersburg on a branch of the Appomattox River. Unfortunately, by the time the Embargo Act was repealed in 1809, most publicly funded manufacturing projects had failed, leaving Virginians disillusioned with stock corporations.

Although the publicly financed spinning mills received most of the press attention during the embargo, other manufacturing efforts also increased. Small carding and fulling mills continued to spread throughout Virginia as household manufacturing increased. The Battersea paper mill in Petersburg began operation in the summer of 1808. In Blandford, near Petersburg, Roderick Haffey started running a cut nail factory in a large house that had formerly served as a tavern. In Richmond, a private entrepreneur succeeded in setting up what a large committee could not: a spinning mill. B. J. Harris spun cotton for a few years beginning in 1808, but eventually had to convert the mill to grinding' wheat.

The Embargo Act and its successors did not achieve their stated goals and instead had inflicted severe damage to the American economy. Virginians, however, viewed it as a necessary demonstration of our resolve to confront what they perceived as a British threat to American sovereignty and honor. Although the American economy began to recover in 1810, that recovery would quickly be derailed by the outbreak of war between the United States and Great Britain in 1812. The anti-British resolve that pervaded Virginia during the embargo made Virginian support for the War of 1812 inevitable, and the contrast between Virginia’s support for the embargo, despite economic hardships, and the Northern opposition, fueled the growing political antagonism between the two regions in the nineteenth century.

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