What is the Embargo Act of 1807?

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  • Written By: Matt Brady
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  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2019
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The embargo act of 1807 was passed by the 10th United States (U.S.) Congress and signed into law by Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president. The act was instigated by a desire to show complete economic and military neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars. It went through numerous developments that amounted to a complete ban on any and all international trade. Jefferson encouraged Congress to pass the act in part as a response to an attack. A British warship attacked an American frigate, injuring 18 and killing three — and impressing three American sailors as well, or forcing them to join and serve the British Royal Navy. The law's effect, however, was something different than Jefferson's intent: Britain still received American exports—many U.S. ports ignored the law for economic gain—and the act brought unintended harm to the American economy by curtailing income that shipping ports depended on. As a result, the Embargo Act of 1807 was ultimately repealed at the end of Jefferson's presidency.


At the outset of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, the U.S. had maintained a position of neutrality that still permitted trading between countries fighting in the war. The thinking was that as long as the U.S. was militarily neutral, it could also remain economically neutral by trading to all warring nations and not showing sides by favoring one country over another. This notion changed, however, with an incident in which the USS Chesapeake, a neutral American frigate carrying goods, was hostilely boarded by the HMS Leopard, a British warship, on June 21, 1807. Americans were killed, injured and captured as a result of the attack. The event was one of the catalysts in persuading Jefferson and Congress toward enacting a full-fledged ban of British imports, and ultimately, American exports to Britain.

Interestingly enough, prior to the incident involving the USS Chesapeake, Congress had passed the Non-Importation Act of 1806, a law which would ban imports from Britain. The law was passed on April 18, 1806, but didn't immediately go into effect; America first wanted to see whether Britain, after hearing of the new act, would cease practices of boarding and impressing ships from neutral countries. As the USS Chesapeake demonstrated, the message wasn't heeded. As a result, President Jefferson and Congress moved not only to begin enforcing the Non-Importation act, but also to add new laws onto the original act to make an even bolder stand of neutrality. This culminated in the passing of the Embargo Act of 1807 on December 22, 1807. The act was officially named "An Embargo laid on Ships and Vessels in the Ports and Harbours of the United States."

By December 1807, Jefferson had gone in less than a year from merely banning British imports to making any trade between America and any other nation illegal. His — and Congress’ — hasty decisions weren’t exactly met with public approval. The Embargo Act of 1807 was immediately met with ridicule and resistance by cities with U.S. shipping ports that economically depended on trade. Prominent ports such as New England were not too willing to give up their primary means of making money. Although the U.S. government attempted to crack down on illegal shipping, ports continued to flout the law by exporting bootlegged goods. Instances in which the government did prevent bootleggers only served to harm the U.S. economy, which began to suffer as a result of losing profits from trade routes.

Jefferson and Congress attempted to undo some of the economic damage by making alterations that eased restrictions on trading. On March 1, 1809, the Non-Intercourse Act was signed into law. This act allowed U.S. ports to once again ship exports and receive imports from other nations, excluding Britain and France. Ultimately, this did little to stop U.S. shippers from providing goods to Britain and France, and Congress had to go back to the drawing board. Macon's Bill Number 2 followed, which effectively opened the gates for completely repealing the Embargo Act of 1807 as well as the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809. Overall, U.S. citizens and the press were relieved to see the Embargo Act gone, which had been ridiculed in several publications with clever spins and anagrams on the word embargo, including "dambargo","ograbme", "Go-bar-'em" and "mob-rage."


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Post 2

The Embargo Act of 1807 is a part of our early history that should be taught in every history class. It shows how even during the countries early years, parties were often divided over a law or policy.

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