The Embargo Act of 1807: Summary & Facts

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.
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This lesson will cover the Embargo Act of 1807. We will focus especially on the Act’s definition, its background and purpose, its specific provisions, and its outcome.
What Was the Embargo Act of 1807?
The Embargo Act of 1807 was a law passed by the United State Congress and signed by President Thomas Jefferson on December 22, 1807. It prohibited American ships from trading in all foreign ports.
President Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson
You might be asking yourself, ‘Why would the U.S. government want to prohibit foreign trade? Wasn’t trade important for the country’s economy?’ Yes, trade was very important, but there was another serious problem plaguing the United States, and the government was willing to take desperate measures to solve it.
Britain and France had been at war since 1803. Americans had tried hard to remain neutral in this conflict and keep up communication and trade with both countries. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working. In 1806, France passed a law that prohibited trade between neutral parties, like the U.S., and Britain. French warships soon began seizing American merchant ships. In 1807, Britain retaliated, prohibiting trade between neutral parties and France.
The British also began seizing American ships and demanded that all American vessels had to check in at British ports before they could trade with any other nation. America was getting the worst end of the deal on all sides. Along with their attempts to control trade, the British also tried to satisfy their need for sailors at America’s expense.
Britain claimed the right to board American ships and take into custody men who were thought to be deserters from the British navy. Most of the time, however, the British had no proof that the men they grabbed were really British deserters, and the U.S. government saw their actions as clear cases of impressment, the seizure of innocent men for forced service in a foreign navy. Historians tend to agree with the Americans; of the approximately ten thousand men captured from American ships, only about a thousand were actually British citizens.
The conflict between Britain and the U.S. reached its climax on June 22, 1807, with the Chesapeake-Leopard affair. The American ship Chesapeake had just left Norfolk, Virginia, when it was stopped by the British warship Leopard. The Leopard’s commander, Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, demanded that the British be allowed to search the Chesapeake for three deserters rumored to be on board. The Chesapeake’s commander, James Barron, refused.
Humphreys was unwilling to take no for an answer, and the Leopard fired on the Chesapeake, killing three and injuring 18. Barron, unable to return more than one shot, was forced to surrender. The British boarded the Chesapeake and seized four men, only one of whom was actually British.
The Chesapeake and Leopard, June 22, 1807
The Chesapeake and Leopard, June 22, 1807
Americans were furious, leading Thomas Jefferson to remark, ‘Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.’ America’s neutrality and basic rights as an independent nation had clearly been violated, and something needed to be done about it. Jefferson didn’t want war, but he was willing to take economic measures. He hoped that perhaps an embargo would hit the British and French where it would hurt them the most, right in the pocketbook.
Provisions of the Embargo
The Embargo Act of 1807 set forth the following provisions:
There would be an embargo on all American merchant ships, prohibiting foreign trade.
American ships would not receive permission to sail to foreign ports.
The President could make exceptions to the embargo as he saw fit.
The President could enforce the embargo using the Navy and revenue officers.
Ships trading between U.S. ports had to have bonds to make sure they were honest and engaged in legitimate (i.e., domestic) trade.
The embargo would not apply to warships.
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