Embargo Act, Legislation by the U.S. Congress in December 1807 restricting British imports and closing U.S. ports to all exports. The act was President Thomas Jefferson’s response to British and French interference with U.S. merchant ships during the Napoleonic Wars. In Europe, the embargo had a limited effect, but it imposed an unpopular restriction on New England merchants and exporters. Legislation passed in 1809 lifted the embargo, but continued British interference with American shipping led to the War of 1812.

US History: Embargo Act of 1807

Definition And A Quick Overview

The Embargo Act of 1807 was passed by the United States Congress and signed by President Thomas Jefferson on December 22, 1807. It prohibited American ships from trading with all foreign ports.

An 1808 Political Cartoon Depicting U.S. Pres. Thomas Jefferson Addressing A Group Of Disgruntled Men As He Defends The Policy Of His Embargo Act.
An 1808 Political Cartoon Depicting U.S. Pres. Thomas Jefferson Addressing A Group Of Disgruntled Men As He Defends The Policy Of His Embargo Act.

You might be wondering why the U.S. government would want to prohibit foreign trade. Isn’t trade vital to the country’s economy?

Yes, trade was extremely important, but there was another serious problem plaguing the United States, and the government was willing to take desperate measures to resolve it.

Since 1803 Britain and France have been at war. In this conflict, the Americans had tried hard to remain impartial and maintain communication and trade with both sides. It didn’t work. In 1806, France passed a law that prohibited trade between neutral parties, such as the U.S. and Britain. American merchant ships were soon seized by French warships. In 1807, Britain retaliated by prohibiting trade between neutral parties and France.

The British also began seizing American ships and required all American ships to check-in at British ports before they could trade with any other nation. This was bad news for America from every angle. In addition to trying to control trade, the British also wanted sailors at the expense of America.

The United Kingdom claimed the right to board American ships and take into custody men who it believed were deserters from the British navy. Generally, the British had no proof that the men they grabbed were actually British deserters. The U.S. government saw them as clear cases of impressment, the seizing of innocent men to serve in a foreign navy.

Of the approximately ten thousand men captured from American ships, only about a thousand were actually British citizens, according to historians.

On June 22, 1807, the Chesapeake-Leopard affair culminated in the conflict between the United States and Great Britain. When the British warship Leopard stopped the American ship Chesapeake, it was just leaving Norfolk, Virginia. Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, commander of the Leopard, requested that the British search the Chesapeake for three deserters who were rumored to be on board. Commander James Barron of the Chesapeake refused.

Humphreys refused to accept no for an answer, so the Leopard fired on the Chesapeake, killing three and injuring 18. Barron failed to return more than one shot and was forced to surrender. Onboard the Chesapeake, the British seized four men, but only one of them was actually British.

Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such exasperation, and even that did not generate such unanimity.’ America’s neutrality and rights as an independent nation were clearly violated, and something needed to be done.

Jefferson did not desire war, but he was willing to pursue economic measures. An embargo may hurt the British and French where it hurts them most, in the pocketbook.

Laws Adopted In The Beginning

The Act of December 22, 1807, did the following:

  • All ships and vessels under US jurisdiction were subject to an embargo.
  • Several ships and vessels were denied clearance to travel to foreign ports and places.
  • Exceptions could be made by the US President for ships under his direct supervision.
  • The US President could do this via instructions to revenue officers and the Navy.
  • It was not designed to prevent the departure of foreign ships or vessels, regardless of their cargo,
  • Bond or surety was required for merchant ships traveling between US ports.
  • Warships were exempt from the embargo.

This shipping embargo was added to the Non-Importation Act of 1806 (2 Stat. 379), which prohibited the import of certain goods and merchandise from the Kingdom of Great Britain. The prohibited imported goods were described by their chief value, such as leather, silk, hemp or flax, tin or brass, wool, glass, and paper goods, nails, hats, clothing, and beer.

Embargo Act of 1807
Embargo Act of 1807

The Embargo Act of 1807 was codified at 2 Stat. “An Embargo laid on Ships and Vessels in the Ports and Harbours of the United States.” The bill was drafted at the request of Thomas Jefferson and passed by the 10th Congress on December 22, 1807, during Session 1; Chapter 5. Originally, Congress acted to enact a bill that prohibited only imports, but later amendments to the bill also prohibited exports.

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The Enforcement Efforts

Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s secretary of the Treasury, opposed the entire embargo and foresaw correctly the impossibility of enforcing the policy and the adverse public reaction. “As to the hope that it may induce England to treat us better,” Gallatin wrote to Jefferson shortly after the bill had become law, “I think it is entirely groundless, government prohibitions always do more mischief than they intended, and it is never without hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than they themselves.”

Since the bill prohibited American ships from leaving American ports for foreign trade, it also hindered American exploration.

The First Supplementary Act

On January 8, 1808, legislation passed in the 10th Congress, Session 1; Chapter 8: “An Act supplementary” to the Embargo Act (2 Stat. 453). According to historian Forrest McDonald, “a loophole had been discovered” in the initial enactment, “namely that coasting vessels, fishing, and whaling boats” had been exempt from the embargo, and they had been circumventing it primarily via Canada. It extended the bonding provision (Section 2 of the initial Embargo Act) to purely domestic trades:

  • A bond was required for coastal, fishing, and whaling ships and vessels under sections 1 and 2 of the supplementary act. Even river boats had to post bonds.
  • Infractions to either the initial or supplementary act were punishable under section 3. Failure to comply would result in the forfeiture of the ship and its cargo or a fine of double the value of the cargo. This would result in the denial of credit for use in custom duties. If a captain fails to comply, he or she will be fined between one and twenty thousand dollars. In addition, he or she will lose the right to swear an oath before any customs officer.
  • Privateers and vessels with letters of marque are no longer exempt from the warship exemption under Section 4.
  • Foreign ships loaded with merchandise for export were subject to a fine and could be seized under Section 5.

Congress denied Jefferson’s request to raise 30,000 troops from the current standing army of 2,800. Because their harbors are unusable in the winter anyway, New England and the northern ports of the mid-Atlantic states had paid only passing attention to the previous embargo acts. With the spring thaw and the passage of yet another embargo act, that was to change.

The effects of the previous acts were immediately felt throughout the coastal states, particularly in New England. An economic downturn turned into a depression and increased unemployment. There were protests all along the east coast.

Merchants and shippers ignored the laws most of the time. The embargo laws were openly flouted on the Canada-US border, particularly in Upstate New York and Vermont. The federal government believed parts of Maine, such as Passamaquoddy Bay on the border with New Brunswick, were in open rebellion. As the month wore on, an increasingly frustrated Jefferson was determined to enforce the embargo to the letter.

Additional Amendments To The Act

Congress passed and Jefferson signed into law yet another Embargo Act supplement on March 12, 1808. It prohibited exports of all goods, whether by land or sea, for the first time. Each offense was punishable by a $10,000 fine and forfeiture of goods.

As a result, the President was empowered to enforce, deny, or grant exceptions to the embargo at his discretion. Port authorities were authorized to seize cargoes without a warrant and to prosecute anyone merely contemplating violating the embargo.

The embargo was openly ignored by citizens and shippers despite the added penalties. Continuing protests led the Jefferson administration to request that Congress enact yet another embargo.

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Great Britain or France were not affected by the Embargo, but Americans were. Having lost American trade, the British started to build up a South American market without any competition from the United States.

Thomas Jefferson was a walking contradiction. Throughout his career, he had been critical of Federalist policies and argued that they often overreached and infringed on state rights. This was the same thing Jefferson had argued against in 1807. He now supported legislation making the Federal government responsible for its enforcement.

In the 1808 presidential election, the Federalists showed signs of gaining strength due to the contradiction.

Congress passed the Non-intercourse Act in 1809 which failed and then passed the Macon Bill both were unsuccessful.

Jefferson and Madison finally achieved their goal of resisting aggression by peaceful means when Britain finally agreed to repeal her Orders in Council in June 1812. The British concession came too late since the United States had already declared the War of 1812 against Britain by the time news reached the United States.

With the Embargo Act of 1813, James Madison attempted to further restrict foreign trade.

The United States would repeal the acts after the War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent. In order to prevent war, they would never again restrict trade with a foreign country.

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Effects Of The Embargo Act On US Trade

In 1807, the embargo devastated American shipping exports and led to a decrease of about 8 percent in the country’s gross national product. In the years following the embargo, American exports declined by 75% and imports by 50%; however, the act did not completely eliminate trade or domestic partners. Exports to the United States reached $108 million before the embargo. The amount dropped to just over $22 million afterward.

Despite the loss of trade with Americans, Britain, and France, locked in the Napoleonic Wars, did not suffer greatly. Therefore, the embargo intended to punish Europe’s most powerful nations actually led to negative effects on ordinary Americans.

Western states in the Union were relatively unaffected, as they had little to trade at the time, but other parts of the country were badly hit. Cotton growers in the South lost access to British markets. The hardest hit were merchants in New England. There was so much discontent there that local political leaders seriously considered seceding from the Union decades before the Nullification Crisis.

Jefferson’s Presidency

As a result of the embargo, smuggling increased across the border with Canada, and smuggling by ship also increased. Thus, the law was ineffective as well as difficult to enforce. There were a number of amendments and new laws written by Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin (1769–1849), passed by Congress, and signed into law by the president. But the president himself essentially ceased active support after signaling his decision not to seek a third term in office in December 1807.

The embargo not only affected Jefferson’s presidency, making him fairly unpopular by the end of it, but the economic effects didn’t fully reverse themselves until the end of the War of 1812.

Repealing The Embargo Act

Despite its success in preventing war, the embargo’s negative consequences forced President Jefferson and Congress to consider repealing it. Economic hardship caused American public opinion to turn against the embargo. Moreover, goods continued to reach Great Britain through illegal shipments, and the British economy was not suffering as much as the embargo’s framers intended.

Initially, the altered prices in Britain affected the price of goods in Britain, but the Britons quickly adjusted and supplemented their decreased North American trade with South American trade. Goods that could not be replaced by other trading partners were not essential to the country’s survival. France, the other country in question, nearly welcomed the American embargo because it supported Napoleon’s Continental System.

The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by Tennessee’s George Washington Cabell, was tasked with writing a report late in 1808 describing the U.S. relationship with Britain and France. It also made policy recommendations. The committee produced three different resolutions.

The first step was to grant France “partial repeal with submission.” The second step was to impose non-importation legislation. The third step was to begin military preparations. Jefferson left the decision to Congress and urged legislators to honor the report presented by Cabell’s committee.

After a long debate, the committee recommended replacing the embargo with a renewed non-intercourse act. All countries except Britain and France would be exempted from the embargo under the proposed act. In addition, French and British ships would be prohibited from entering American waters.

The Non-Intercourse Act was signed by Jefferson on March 1, 1809, three days before he left office.

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Ending the Embargo Act Of 1807

In March of 1809, the Non-Intercourse Act reopened trade to all nations except England and France. However, the embargo’s effects lasted much longer than that. The Federalists of Connecticut were adamant in their dislike and distrust of Jefferson and the Republican party.

Their opposition extended to the War of 1812 as well as to the federal government itself. This culminated in the Hartford Convention of 1814, which ultimately contributed to the Federalists’ downfall.

Despite being disastrous for shipping, the embargo had a positive effect on manufacturing. A number of Connecticut’s streams and rivers provided a reliable source of waterpower, and textile mills began operating as early as 1790, using technology smuggled from Great Britain. Until the embargo shut down trade and British imports were no longer readily available, these smaller industries were unable to compete with the large British manufacturers.

Connecticut’s other industries also prospered during the embargo. There were paper mills, gun factories, blast furnaces, forges, tanneries, and distilleries. Connecticut produced nearly $6 million worth of manufactured goods each year by 1810, a significant amount at that time. Prior to becoming a center of industry and innovation, the state had been primarily an agricultural state.

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What was the Embargo Act and why did it fail?

Jefferson underestimated the British dependence on American goods and did not maintain the embargo long or tightly enough to achieve success. Merchants in the United States suffered as a result. The result was abandoned docks and rotting ships in the harbors.

What was the effect of the Embargo Act of 1807?

The embargo destroyed the U.S. economy. Because they could not import the goods they produced, the industrialized North suffered, and the Southern farmers who could not export their crops suffered. It had very little impact on Great Britain.

What was the purpose of the Embargo Act?

Embargo Act, Legislation by the U.S. Congress in December 1807 that closed U.S. ports to all exports and restricted imports from Britain. The act was Pres. Thomas Jefferson’s response to British and French interference with neutral U.S. merchant ships during the Napoleonic Wars.

What did the Embargo Act prohibit?

The Embargo Act of 1807 was an attempt by President Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Congress to prohibit American ships from trading in foreign ports. It was intended to punish Britain and France for interfering with American trade while the two major European powers were at war with each other.

Why was the Embargo Act Jefferson’s greatest failure?

According to him, economic coercion would convince Britain and France to respect America’s neutrality. However, the embargo was unpopular and costly. Smuggling was widespread, hurting the American economy far more than that of the British and French.

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