The Embargo Act of 1807 - On the Path Toward War

To many Americans, the Embargo Act seemed like a hair-brained idea, if ever there was one. On December 17, 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte issued the Milan Decree in answer to the British orders in council of November 11. The countermeasure ruled that all ships obeying the British orders in council and all ships searched by the British to be subject to seizure and confiscation by the French.

"Prelude to War" is excerpted from our standards-based program Growth of a Nation: Securing the Republic. Click here to view a higher-resolution version. 

The two warring nations were seeking advantage by disrupting supply shipments to the enemy. The United States was caught in the crossfire. On December 18, President Jefferson asked Congress for an embargo on trade and commerce with all foreign nations—not just the British and French. Within a week, the Embargo Act became law over opposition by Federalists.

Surprisingly, it seems that the reaction to the Embargo Act in New England was supportive, at least at first. In February 1808, the General Court of Massachusetts resolved that:

“. . . we consider the imposing of embargo a wise and highly expedient measure, and from its impartial nature calculated to secure us the blessings of peace.”

Embargo Act of 1807
Embargo Act of 1807

The positive sentiment didn't last long. In short course, the trade ban savaged maritime economies, while exacting very little damage on the British or French. The satirical cartoon, "The happy Effects of that Grand System of shutting Ports against the English!!" was published by Walker & Cornell in October 1808, less than a year after the Embargo Act was enacted. By that time, its effect were widespread and President Jefferson was bearing much of the criticism. 

The Act remained in effect until 1809 when it was replaced by a less-onerous non-intercourse act. Through this act, all countries except for Britain and France were removed from the Embargo. 

Trade in and out of New England remained depressed until 1810 when, once again, 

"Yankee ships hastened to spread their white wings on every sea," carrying cargoes of rice, grain, tobacco and cotton.

While the Embargo Act did not lead directly to the War of 1812, it's failure was one of several factors that contributed to an escalation of tension with England and, ultimately, the outbreak of hostilities.


Would you like unrestricted access to our full catalog?

Streaming Room™ members enjoy global access to to our entire collection of award-winning video programs—and we offer flexible subscription plans to fit any budget. Check it out now.