We’ve Tried Trade Embargos Before

On June 21st, 1807, the U.S.S. Chesapeake, 36 guns, was stopped and boarded by H.M.S. Leopard, 50 guns in international waters of Virginia. The British captain had intelligence that four Royal Navy deserters were on board the U.S. ship. The offenders were three Americans impressed (fancy word for kidnapped) by the Royal Navy and one Englishman.

It didn’t matter to the court-martial or the Royal Navy that the four men had papers showing that while they were born in England, they had emigrated to the U.S. and had the proper paperwork of the time documenting their American citizenship. The four men were taken back to Great Britain, where the Englishman was hung and the Americans sentenced to 500 lashes with the cat o’ nine tails. Wisely, the English did not carry out the punishment since the men would have died before the cat was applied 500 times and returned the sailors to the U.S.

In the U.S., the incident caused a political firestorm and President Jefferson was forced to act. This was a period during which he had defunded the U.S. Navy despite the continual impressment of U.S. merchant seamen. For the record, between 1800 and 1812, 15,000+ U.S. citizens were forced to serve in the Royal Navy.

At the time, England and its allies were in a life and death struggle against France and her allies. Both the primary antagonists wanted the U.S. to take sides which a succession of presidents – Washington, Adams, and now Jefferson, steadfastly refused to do. U.S. neutrality and the lack of a Navy encouraged the two antagonists to seize U.S.-flagged merchant ships.

What came about was the Embargo Act of 1807 which was a follow-on piece of legislation to the Non-Importation Act of 1806, which prohibited U.S. merchants from bringing goods (leather, silk, hemp or flax, tin or brass, wool, glass, and paper goods, nails, hats, clothing, and beer) into the U.S.

The Embargo Act went one step further and prohibited ships from the warring powers to either deliver or take on board cargos in U.S. ports. By passing the law, Jefferson hoped to pressure both Britain and France to stop seizing our ships.

Like most acts of its type, it failed miserably. The Embargo Act of 1807 caused the U.S. economy to contract by five percent. The country’s economy had been booming because the war created a need for what the U.S. could deliver and was opening other new markets in the Mediterranean and Europe.

The Embargo Act of 1807 also had political consequences. The Federalist Party, which had lost the presidency in the election of 1800 and was increasingly in the minority in both houses, made substantial gains in the 1808 Congressional elections, something that Jefferson noted. In the last 16 days before he left office, Jefferson rammed through Congress the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which repealed the Embargo Act of 1807.

Between the two pieces of legislation, Jefferson had significantly damaged the U.S. economy. However, there are two silver linings to these two pieces of legislation. First, the ban on British manufactured goods spurred American businesses to become early adopters of what became the Industrial Revolution.

Second, in 1956, 149 years later, the founders of a new ski area in Vermont named the resort Smuggler’s Notch. While the Embargo Act was in force, smugglers bringing British goods into New England found a narrow track past Mount Mansfield, Mount Sterling, Mount Madonna, and Mount Morse in Northern Vermont that was unpatrolled. During Prohibition, the route was revived to bring alcoholic beverages into the U.S.

Image is of a teapot fashioned in 1807 on which on one side of the is inscribed “Mind your own business” and on the other, “Prudence is the best remedy for hard times.” The teapot was created in support of the Embargo Act of 1807.

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