Effects of the Embargo Act and War of 1812

That there was abundant occasion for war needs no argument. The aggressive acts of Great Britain were of a nature which now would not be submitted to for a month, yet they were extended over a period of some twenty years. An official statement of the Secretary of State, made in 1812, declares that five hundred and twenty-eight American merchantmen had been taken by British men-of-war prior to 1807, and three hundred and eighty-nine after that period. The value of these vessels and cargoes, if estimated at the low figure of twenty-five thousand dollars each, would be nearly thirty million dollars, forcibly seized by a nation with whom we were at peace. During the same period several thousand seamen were impressed from American vessels, the greater number of whom were undoubtedly American citizens. Of eight hundred and seventy-three taken in eighteen months from October, 1807, to April, 1809, only ninety-eight were shown to be British subjects, but only two hundred and eighty-seven were released. And such as were eventually yielded as American citizens were long held as virtual prisoners, and finally left to make their way home penniless, and without even an apology for the outrage.

There was in all this abundant warrant for war. But the preliminary measure of the embargo, while it had caused severe distress to the industrial classes of England and reduced numerous manufacturers to poverty, bore yet more severely on the industries of America, and roused an unrelenting opposition to the administration. In the House the declaration of war was carried by a vote of 79 to 49, and in the Senate by the small majority of 19 to 13. The strong opposition here displayed was general throughout the Northern section of the country, and the Federal party everywhere opposed the war with great bitterness. The industrial depression which the embargo had created was continued by the war, and the suffering experienced gave strong support to the measures of the "Peace Party," who threw every possible obstruction, short of open rebellion, in the way of its successful prosecution.

At that period the commerce of the country was much less localized than at present. The total exports from 1791 to 1813 aggregated, in round numbers, two hundred and ninety-nine millions of dollars from the Eastern section, five hundred and thirty-four millions from the Middle, and five hundred and nine millions from the Southern section. The shipping of New England was more abundant, yet it was not much in excess of that of the Middle and Southern States. The distress from loss of commerce, therefore, must have been somewhat evenly distributed. Yet the vigorous opposition to the war came from the New England States. It had become a party sentiment, and was manifested most strongly where the Federal party was in excess.

The feeling engendered grew so violent that a disruption of the Union seems to have been desired by some of the ultra-Federalists. The lack of preparation for the war, and the incapacity with which it was managed for a long period, gave abundant arguments against the administration, while the heavy taxation laid upon a people who had been for years impoverished added a strong personal point to these arguments. Inspired by these feelings, the people of New England withheld aid as far as possible from the government, and made the not unreasonable complaint that the strength of the army was wasted in inadequate efforts to invade Canada, while the ocean border was left at the mercy of English cruisers, and the militia which should have defended it employed in distant and useless duty. The South and West favored the invasion of Canada, but from New York northward the opposite opinion strongly prevailed, while New England complained that the administration left it completely undefended, and even refused to Massachusetts the arms to which that State was entitled, and which were needed for its defence.

The embargo of 1813 was a new blow to the interests of New England. It was now proposed by zealous Federalists that the militia and revenues of New England should be kept for home defence, and Massachusetts resolved to call out ten thousand men to protect the coast, these men to be under officers appointed by the State. Such a proceeding was dangerous, though it could not be held to violate the provisions of the Constitution, which limited the control of the army to the general government in times of peace, but made no definite provision on this subject for times of war.

The opposition to administration measures reached its ultimate in December, 1814, when a convention of delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, with a partial representation from New Hampshire and Vermont, met at Hartford for the purpose of considering the grievances of the people and of deciding how they could be best redressed. This convention assembled in secret session, and much doubt existed as to its purposes and proceedings. It was denounced as treasonable by the friends of the administration, and a strong excitement prevailed concerning it. But at the date of its assembly the enthusiasm of its supporters had become reduced by the strong indications of peace, and this undoubtedly influenced the deliberations of the members. When its proceedings were published they proved to be so mild as to excite general surprise. Instead of advocating a dissolution of the Union, or other violent measure, they confined themselves to a statement of grievances, most of which unquestionably existed, but were necessary results of the war, and proposed several amendments to the Constitution. They demanded that representation in the House should be based on the free population alone, that the President should not be eligible for re-election, that State offices should be held only by native-born citizens, that no embargo should extend more than sixty days, and that a two-thirds vote should be required to prohibit commercial intercourse, admit new States, authorize hostilities, and declare war. They also strongly opposed the mode adopted in recruiting the army. In all this there was nothing to warrant the terms of reproach with which it was long customary to speak of the "Hartford Convention," which was held up to the people by the opposing party as something deserving of the severest reprobation.

Its recommendations fell dead. With the signing of the treaty of peace the causes of complaint disappeared, and in the universal joy that followed all thought that the Constitution was not a perfect instrument disappeared. In August, 1814, the commissioners of the United States and Great Britain met at Ghent, in Flanders, where they signed a treaty of peace on the 24th of the following December. The British commissioners at first insisted that the Indians should be made parties to the treaty, and that definite boundary-lines should be fixed which neither party should pass. This was objected to on the part of the United States, and it was finally agreed that the Indians should be restored to the status of rights and possessions which they held in 1811, if they would agree to desist from hostilities. Both parties were prohibited from keeping a naval force on the lakes. The questions of boundaries and of the fisheries were settled, but on the points which had been the cause of the war - the encroachments upon American commerce, and the right of impressment - no measures were adopted. The treaty, as signed, was silent on these subjects. These causes of the war had disappeared, and the navy of the United States had proved its ability to defend American commerce in any future difficulty, so the sore subject was quietly ignored.

The war had produced certain important changes in the industrial relations of America. The embargo had annihilated commerce for several years before the war, and this had been continued by the subsequent blockade, these influences causing an abnormal scarcity of goods of foreign production. Many such articles were obtained wholly from abroad, and these grew very scarce and dear. Others, such as sugar, woolens, pottery, glassware, hardware, and cutlery, were produced partly at home, and were less severely affected; while the staples of home production - cotton, tobacco, and food-products - fell very low in price. Yet strenuous efforts were made to overcome the scarcity of foreign goods by home manufacture, and the interests of industrial production in America gained an important impetus. Numerous manufacturing establishments were founded, particularly in the Northern States, and that process of rendering the United States industrially independent of Europe, which had made some progress against severe discouragements in the colonies and in the early years of the republic, now progressed with encouraging rapidity.

But the close of the war quickly reversed all these conditions. Foreign goods, mostly of British manufacture, were poured profusely into the country, and the price of such commodities fell to less than half their war value. As a consequence, many of the rival manufactories of America were ruined. They had not attained a condition to enable them to compete with the skilled and cheap labor abroad, and but few of them were able to stand the sudden strain. It was the severer that English manufacturers, jealous of this growing rivalry, took special pains to undersell the products of American workshops.

Agriculture, on the contrary, received a powerful impetus, and its products greatly increased in value. Cotton, which had been sold with difficulty at ten cents per pound, now had a ready sale at more than double that price. Tobacco rose from two or three to fifteen, twenty, and even twenty-five dollars the hundred-weight. The value of land and labor rose in proportion, producers and merchants became enriched by the rapid rise in prices, and the shipping interests of the country grew more prosperous than ever before. The currency, which during the war had become a depreciated paper money, continued disordered, but this had no specially disturbing influence on the agricultural and commercial prosperity of the country, and every interest except that of manufacture was remarkably benefited. With this sudden change from poverty and privation to affluence and luxury the expenditure of the people greatly increased. Gold watches replaced those of silver, silk goods took the place of cotton, costly wines succeeded whiskey and other common beverages, furniture became transformed, and in every way the enhanced wealth of the people made itself apparent. Yet during this period the only money in use south of New England was the irredeemable paper of the banks, or in some cases the currency issues of irresponsible individuals.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 3)