The diplomatic neutrality of the United States was tested during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). The warring nations of Britain and France both imposed trade restrictions in order to weaken each other's economies. These restrictions also disrupted American trade and threatened American neutrality. As time went on, British harassment of American ships increased. Controversial measures included British impressment of American men and seizure of American goods. After the Chesapeake Affair in June 1807, pitting the British warship Leopard against the American frigate Chesapeake, President Thomas Jefferson faced a decision regarding the situation at hand. Ultimately, he chose an economic option to assert American rights: The Embargo Act of 1807.
Although not restricted to the presidential administrations of Jefferson and James Madison, the on-going impressment of American sailors became a key issue for the United States during the Napoleonic Wars. After witnessing the horrors of war with France, many British sailors deserted His Majesty's navy and enlisted in the American merchant marines. In order to retrieve the deserters, British "press gangs" came aboard American ships. The British, however, tended to take anyone who could pass as a British soldier – unless the sailor could prove his American citizenship. Approximately 1,000, out of the estimated 10,000 men taken from American ships, were proven to have British citizenship.1
James Madison had summed up the contrasting points of view in an 1804 letter to James Monroe:
[W]e consider a neutral flag on the high seas as a safeguard to those sailing under it. Great Britain on the contrary asserts a right to search for and seize her own subjects; and under that cover, as cannot but happen, are often seized and taken off, citizens of the United States and citizens or subjects of other neutral countries, navigating the high seas, under the protection of the American flag.2
In January 1806, President Jefferson delivered a message to Congress concerning impressment:
On the impressment of our Seamen, our remonstrances have never been intermitted. a hope existed, at one moment, of an arrangement which might have been submitted to. but it soon passed away, & the practice, tho' relaxed at times in the distant seas, has been constantly pursued in those in our neighborhood.3
Jefferson's statements heightened anti-British sentiment among American citizens.
On February 14, 1806, the United States Senate sent President Jefferson a resolution that read as follows:
Resolved, That the capture and condemnation under the orders of the British government, and adjudications of their courts of Admiralty, of American vessels and their cargoes, on the pretext of their being employed in a trade with the enemies of Great Britain, prohibited in time of peace, is an unprovoked aggression upon the property of the citizens of these United States, a violation of their neutral rights, and an encroachment upon their national independence.4
With these considerations in mind, the United States Congress passed the Non-Importation Act on April 18, 1806. The author of the resolution, Joseph A. Nicholson, a Congressman from Maryland, created a list of items the United States could produce at home. The items on the list were those that Americans would no longer import from Great Britain. As a whole, Jefferson was pleased with the result.5 In a letter to Monroe, Jefferson said that the House of the Representatives had never been "more solidly united in doing what they believe to be the best for the public interest."6 The measures, however, were not enacted on the date originally intended, November 15, 1806. The date was postponed in order to wait for the results of negotiations in Great Britain.
Before implementation of the Non-Importation Act, James Monroe and William Pinkney were instructed by President Jefferson to negotiate with Great Britain in hopes of peacefully ending the harassment of American ships and seamen.7 After months of negotiations, a treaty was finalized in December 1806 and "defined neutral and belligerent rights in time of war and established terms of trade between the United States and the British Empire."8 The treaty, however, did not include clauses concerning the impressment of American citizens. Jefferson and his advisers agreed before the treaty was received that if the treaty did not include clauses to stop the impressment of Americans, the President would not forward it to Congress for ratification. In a letter to Monroe, defending his actions, Jefferson wrote:
[W]e immediately stated in conversation to the members of the legislature & others, that having by a letter recieved in January, percieved that our ministers might sign a treaty not providing satisfactorily against the impressment of our seamen, we had, on the 3d. of Feb. informed you that should such an one could have been forwarded, it could not be ratified, & recommending therefore that you should resume negociations for inserting an article to that effect, that we should hold the treaty in suspense until we could learn from you, the result of our instructions which probably would not be till summer, & then decide on the question of calling the Senate.9
Opponents of Jefferson later criticized his actions. An article in early 1812 in the Alexandria Gazette stated, "... the rejection of that treaty, the responsibility of which act Mr. Jefferson has boldly taken to himself, has been the fruitful source of all the evils, which we have suffered from embargoes and non-importation acts, and may soon suffer from war."10
The Chesapeake Affair
As time went on, the tension between Britain and the United States grew. In February 1807, it was reported that three men aboard the H.M.S. Melampus escaped and joined the ranks of the U.S.S. Chesapeake. The British Council asked for the return of the men, but the request was denied. An investigation was called for by Secretary Madison and the Secretary of the Navy subsequently reported that the three men in question were American citizens. Both John Strahan (or Stachan) and William Ware were from Maryland, while Daniel Martin was a resident of Massachusetts.11 According to the report, these three men had previously been impressed by the British, despite their American citizenship; therefore, they were not considered deserters. In the meantime, the British Vice Admiral, George Cranfield, issued an order to captains and commanders of all British ships along the American coast. The order stated that many British subjects had deserted and were now on board the U.S.S. Chesapeake. Therefore, if any ship should meet the Chesapeake, the captain should be shown the order and the ship should be searched for British deserters.
On board the Chesapeake, Captain James Barron was preparing to sail to the Mediterranean. On June 22, 1807, the Chesapeake and the H.M.S. Leopard crossed paths. The Chesapeake halted alongside the Leopard in order to allow the British messenger on board. The messenger recited the proclamation given to him by his superiors. Captain Barron refused to allow the British to search his ship. The captain made it clear that there were no such men aboard the ship. Shortly after, the Leopard fired upon the Chesapeake in retaliation. Approximately twenty minutes later, the American ship surrendered to the British demands. On board the Chesapeake, the British looked at the muster and took the three men in question off the ship, as well as John Wilson (also known as Jenkin Ratford), who was a proven deserter. In addition to the four men taken off the ship, three seamen were killed, eight were seriously injured, and ten more sustained non-life-threatening injuries.
American sovereignty had been clearly violated by the British. The men on board the Leopard had used force, fired upon the American flag, and destroyed American life and property. In his seventh annual message to Congress, President Jefferson stated that "these Aggravations necessarily lead to the policy either of never admitting an armed vessel into our harbours, or of Maintaining in every Harbour such an armed force as may constrain Obedience to the laws, & protect the lives and property of our Citizens against their armed guests."12
The American public was outraged by the actions of Britain, and Jefferson and his cabinet now needed to find a reasonable response to British actions. As news spread regarding the incident, Jefferson noted that "this country has never been in such a state of excitement since the Battle of Lexington."13 In order to immediately address the issue, the Virginia militia was ordered to capture the British ship. After the ship was captured, as a sign of good will, Jefferson allowed the British sailors to return to Britain and assembled his cabinet members in order to discuss the issue.14
Jefferson, however, did not convene Congress. There were several reasons for this decision. Firstly, Jefferson wanted tempers to cool and to wait for a response and apology from the British government. Secondly, he wanted to provide ample time for the military to prepare in case of a possible armed conflict, and for ships outside of American waters to return home. Finally, he did not wish to reconvene Congress because he feared it would automatically be interpreted as a call to war.15 Jefferson later ordered the British ships to leave American waters, saying, "if they come ashore indeed, they must be captured, or destroyed if they cannot be captured, because we mean to enforce the Proclamation rigorously ...."16
Embargo of 1807
Shortly after the Chesapeake Affair, Thomas Jefferson received a letter from his friend John Page in Richmond on July 12, 1807, quoting the many citizens who insisted that "... an immediate Embargo is necessary ... to retrieve our lost honor, & to bring the mad King to his senses."17 Although Jefferson was not fully opposed to an embargo, he wanted to allow ample time for American naval ships to return stateside.
Impressment was continuing and the British showed no sign of wanting to improve relations between the two nations. When James Madison updated the United States Congress on impressment statistics early in 1808, he reported, "From the returns in the office it would appear that 4228 American Seamen had been impressed into the British service since the commencement of the War, and that 936 of this number had been discharged leaving in that service 3292."18
On December 15, 1807, Jefferson called his cabinet members to discuss the next phase of reconciliation.19 Shortly afterwards, the President received news from Europe that did not rule in favor of a settlement. In fact, England released a royal proclamation that promised more impressments. In addition to this, Napoleon had the full intention of subjecting U.S. shipping to the Berlin Decree, an act created in response to a British blockade on France.20 The situation in Europe showed no signs of improvement. The Jefferson administration needed to respond.
As December 1807 began, debate about an embargo was heating up in Congress. Two key figures against the measure were Massachusetts Governor James Sullivan and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. Sullivan's constituents would be greatly affected by the measure as most of American commercial shipping was based in his state. Secretary Gallatin, on the other hand, faced the problem of enforcing the measure.21 Gallatin suggested amending the present Non-Importation Act instead of imposing a full embargo. In a letter to Jefferson, Gallatin argued, "In every point of view, privations, sufferings, revenue, effect on the enemy, politics at home &c., I prefer war to a permanent embargo."22 Jefferson, however, was unmoved by arguments against the embargo, and failed to see the benefits of a restrictive economic policy like the Non-Importation Act. He delivered the following remarks before Congress on December 17, 1807:
To the Senate & House of Representatives of the United States[:] The communications now made, shewing the great & increasing dangers with which our vessels, our seamen and merchandize are threatened, on the high seas & elsewhere, from the belligerent powers of Europe, and it being of the greatest importance to keep in safety these essential resources, I deem it my duty to recommend the subject to the consideration of Congress, who will doubtless percieve all the advantage which may be expected from an inhibition of the departure of our vessels from the ports of the United States. Their wisdom will also see the necessity of making every preparation for whatever events may grow out of the present crisis.23
Four days later the United States Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, making the Non-Importation Act obsolete.
Wanting to maintain peace for as long as possible, Jefferson supported the Embargo Act. Some changes to the act were needed, however, and Congress addressed these changes by passing the "supplementary," "additional," and "enforcement" acts in 1807 and 1808.24 The supplementary act required "... bonds from vessels in the coastwise trade, and also from those engaged in fishing and whaling." The additional act "tightened the system by requiring bonds for foreign vessels engaged in the coastal trade; and, what was more significant, it forbade the exportation of goods of any sort by land as well as by sea."25 Because the embargo had prompted an increase in smuggling, the enforcement act allowed port authorities to seize cargoes if there was any suspicion of violation of the embargo, and the President himself was empowered to use the Army or the Navy for additional enforcement.
Repeal of the Embargo Act
Although the embargo was successful in preventing war, its negative consequences forced President Jefferson and Congress to consider repealing the measure. The American economy was suffering and American public opinion turned against the embargo. Moreover, goods continued to reach Great Britain through illegal shipments and British trade was not suffering as much as the framers of the embargo had intended.26 There was an initial effect on the price of goods in Britain, but the Britons quickly adapted to the altered prices, and supplemented their decreased North American trade with South American commerce.27 Items that could not be replaced through other trading partners were not goods that were vital to the survival of the country. The other country in question, France, almost seemed to welcome the American embargo because it supported Napoleon's Continental System.28
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by George Washington Cabell from Tennessee, was in charge of writing a report giving an overview of the U.S. relationship with Britain and France, as well as giving suggestions for policies, late in 1808. The committee came up with three different resolutions. The first was to grant "partial repeal with submission." The second was to impose a non-importation act on France. The third was to begin military preparations. Jefferson left the decision up to Congress and urged Congressmen to honor the report given by Cabell's committee.29
After a long-winded debate, the committee recommended that the best course of action was the substitution of the embargo with a renewed non-intercourse act. Under the proposed act, all countries except Britain and France would be removed from the embargo. At the same time, French and British ships would be banned from American waters.30
Jefferson signed the Non-Intercourse Act on March 1, 1809, three days before he left office.31
Author and lecturer Jim Sofka looks at Jefferson's Embargo at 200, audio files of a November 27, 2007, talk at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.
3. Jefferson to United States Congress, January 17, 1806, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Legislative Records of the House of Representatives. Transcription available at Founders Online.