The Embargo Act of 1807



During the year 1807, American genius and enterprise achieved a great triumph in science and art, by the successful and permanent establishment of navigation by the power of steam. This was accomplished by Robert Fulton and Chancellor Livingston. At the beginning of September, 1807, the Clermont, the first steamboat built by these gentlemen, made a voyage from New York to Albany, one hundred and sixty miles, in thirty-six hours, against wind and tide; and from that time until now navigation by steam, for travel and commerce, has been steadily increasing in volume and perfection, until such vessels may now be seen on every ocean and in almost every harbor of the globe, even among the ice-pack of polar seas. This was the second of the great and beneficent achievements which have distinguished American inventors during the last eighty years. The cotton-gin, invented by Eli Whitney, was the first; an implement that can do the work of a thousand persons in cleaning cotton-wool of the seeds. That machine has been one of the most important aids in the accumulation of our national wealth.

Another heavy blow was struck at American commerce late in 1807. A British order in council issued on the 11th of November, forbade all neutral nations to trade with France or her allies, except upon the payment of a tribute to Great Britain. Napoleon retaliated by issuing a decree at Milan, in Italy, on the 17th of December, forbidding all trade with England and her colonies; and authorizing the confiscation of any vessel found in his ports which had submitted to English search, or paid the tribute exacted. These edicts almost stopped the commercial operations of the civilized world. American foreign commerce was annihilated. The President had called Congress together at an earlier day (October 25) than usual, to consider the critical state of public affairs; and in a confidential message, he recommended that body to pass an act levying a commercial embargo. Such an act was passed on the 22nd of December, 1807, by which all American and foreign vessels in our ports were detained and all American vessels abroad were ordered home immediately, that the seamen might be trained for the impending war in defence of sacred rights.

This act caused widespread distress in commercial communities, and the firmness of the government and the patriotism of the people were severely tried for more than a year, under aggravated insults by the British government which exacted tribute in a form more odious than that of the North African robbers. In the spring of 1808, the British Parliament, with an air of condescension, passed an act permitting Americans to trade with France and her dependencies, on the condition that vessels engaged in such trade should first enter some British port, pay a transit duty, and take out a license. In other words, Great Britain said to the United States, with as much insolence as the Dey of Algiers, "Pay me tribute, and my cruisers (or corsairs) will be instructed not to plunder you."

The embargo was denounced by the opposition with great vehemence as an unwise provocative of war. Josiah Quincy, the leader of the Federalists in Congress, said in debate: "Let us once declare to the world that, before our embargo policy be abandoned, the French decrees and the British orders in council must be revoked, and we league against us whatever spirit of honor and pride exists in both those nations. No nation will be easily brought to acknowledge such a dependence on another as to be made to abandon, by a withholding of intercourse, a settled line of policy." It drew from William Cullen Bryant the poet, then a lad only thirteen years of age, a sharp, satirical poem. It was called a "Terrapin policy."-the policy that would shut up the nation in its own shell-and it was caricatured as such by the pencil of Jarvis and the burin of Dr. Anderson. The wise words of Quincy were justified when he said: "A nation mistakes its relative importance and consequence in thinking that its countenance, or its intercourse, or its existence, is all important to the rest of mankind." The embargo failed to obtain from France or Great Britain the slightest acknowledgement of American rights, and it was repealed on the first day of March, 1809-three days before Mr. Jefferson left the Presidential chair to make room for James Madison, who had been elected to succeed him as chief magistrate of the republic. On the same day Congress passed an act forbidding all commercial intercourse with France and Great Britain until the "orders in council" and the "decrees" should be repealed.

In the debates on the embargo, the most violent attacks upon the administration and its supporters were sometimes indulged in, upon the floor of Congress. In this course, Barent Gardinier, of New York, was most conspicuous, making sweeping charges of corruption. His violence and abuse was such that severe personal allusion to Gardinier was elicited from Campbell of Tennessee. Gardinier challenged him to mortal combat. They met at Bladensburg, when Gardinier was severely wounded in the side, and was borne, fainting, from the field. He soon recovered; and when he reappeared in the House, he was as violent as ever.





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