Front Page Titles (by Subject) An Act Laying an Embargo on All Ships and Vessels in the Ports and Harbors of the United States 22 December 1807 - Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
An Act Laying an Embargo on All Ships and Vessels in the Ports and Harbors of the United States 22 December 1807 - Lance Banning, Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle 
Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle, ed. and with a Preface by Lance Banning (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
An Act Laying an Embargo on All Ships and Vessels in the Ports and Harbors of the United States 22 December 1807
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That an embargo be and hereby is laid on all ships and vessels in the ports and places within the limits or jurisdiction of the United States, cleared or not cleared, bound to any foreign port or place; and that no clearance be furnished to any ship or vessel bound to such foreign port or place except vessels under the immediate direction of the President of the United States; and that the President be authorized to give such instructions to the officers of the revenue and of the navy and revenue cutters of the United States as shall appear best adapted for carrying the same into full effect… .
Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That during the continuance of this act, no registered or sea-letter vessel having on board goods, wares, and merchandise shall be allowed to depart from one port of the United States to another within the same unless the master, owner, consignee, or factor of such vessel shall first give bond with one or more sureties to the Collector of the district from which she is bound to depart in a sum of double the value of the vessel and cargo, that the said goods, wares and merchandise shall be relanded in some port of the United States, dangers of the seas excepted… .
Editorials on the Embargo
Washington’s National Intelligencer, which often spoke for the administration, offered a fuller explanation and defense of the embargo than the administration itself would ever do. Among the many condemnations, Timothy Pickering’s stands out.
“Embargo” National Intelligencer 23 December 1807
This is a strong measure proceeding from the energy of the public councils, appealing to the patriotism of their constituents, and is of all measures the one peculiarly adapted to the crisis. The honest judgment of all parties has anticipated and called for it.
The measure could no longer, in fact, be delayed without sacrificing the vital interests of the nation.
Great Britain [violating neutral rights] furnished an occasion which was seized by the French government for the decree of November 1806, interdicting commerce with G. Britain, which was adopted by the allies of France, particularly by Spain, in her decree of February 1807.
The decree of November was followed by the retaliating British order of January 1807, making war on all neutral trade usually carried on from the ports of one enemy to those of another.
France, again seconded by Spain and other allies, is retaliating on this order by new constructions extending their decrees to all trade from British territories or in British articles.
And it is clear that, if not already done, G. Britain meditates further retaliations, most probably an interdict of all trade by this country (now the only neutral one) with the enemies of G. Britain, that is to say with the whole commercial world.
To these destructive operations against our commerce is to be added the late proclamation of G. Britain on the subject of seamen. … With respect to seamen on board merchant vessels, the proclamation has made it the duty of all her sea officers to search for and seize all such as they may call British natives, whether wanted or not for the service of their respective ships. From the proportion of American citizens heretofore taken under the name of British seamen may be calculated the number of victims to be added by this formal sanction to the claim of British officers and the conversion of that claim into a duty.
Thus the ocean presents a field … where no harvest is to be reaped but that of danger, of spoliation, and of disgrace.
Under such circumstances the best to be done is what has been done: a dignified retirement within ourselves; a watchful preservation of our resources; and a demonstration to the world that we possess a virtue and a patriotism which can take any shape that will best suit the occasion.
It is singularly fortunate that an embargo, whilst it guards our essential resources, will have the collateral effect of making it the interest of all nations to change the system which has driven our commerce from the ocean.
Great Britain will feel it in her manufactures, in the loss of naval stores, and above all in the supplies essential to her colonies, to the number of which she is adding by new conquests.
France will feel it in the loss of all those colonial luxuries which she has hitherto received through our neutral commerce; and her colonies will at once be cut off from the sale of their productions and the source of their supplies.
Spain will feel it more, perhaps, than any, in the failure of imported food, not making enough within herself, and in her populous and important colonies which depend wholly on us for the supply of their daily wants.
It is a happy consideration also attending this measure that, although it will have these effects, salutary it may be hoped, on the policy of the great contending nations, it affords neither of them the slightest ground for complaint. The embargo violates the rights of none. Its object is to secure ourselves. It is a measure of precaution, not of aggression. It is resorted to by all nations when their great interests require it… .
But may not the embargo bring on war from some of the nations affected by it? Certainly not, if war be not predetermined on against us. Being a measure of peace and precaution; being universal and therefore impartial; extending in reality as well as ostensibly to all nations, there is not a shadow of pretext to make it a cause of war… .
All that remains, then, for a people confiding in their government is to rally round the measure which that government has adopted for their good, and to secure its just effect by patiently and proudly submitting to every inconvenience which such a measure necessarily carries with it.
Friday, 25 December
A rapid view was taken in our last paper of the nature and effects of the Embargo. … For a time it will materially reduce the price of our produce and enhance that of many foreign commodities. … There will [be] occasion for much fortitude, perhaps for great patience.
Is the state of our affairs such as requires this sacrifice? Might not a resort to milder measures do as well? We confidently answer no… .
A crisis has arrived that calls for some decided step. The national spirit is up. That spirit is invaluable. In case of a war it is to lead us to conquest. … In our solemn appeal to the world, it is to silence forever the idle hope that flatters itself with the phantom, either that we are a divided people or that our republican institutions have not energy enough to defend us, much less to inflict serious injury on our enemies… .
The people having shown their spirit, the season has arrived for the government to sustain, second, and direct it. To delay any longer to do this would be to jeopardize its existence. The crisis not requiring war, still hoping if not expecting peace, an embargo is the next best measure for maintaining the national tone. It will arm the nation. It will do more. It will arm the executive government. It is an unequivocal and efficient expression of confidence in the executive and gives the President a new weapon of negotiation—we say weapon of negotiation, for, in the present state of the world, even negotiation has ceased to be pacific. Without being backed by force it is an empty sound.
The embargo furnishes this weapon. The sword is not drawn from the scabbard, but it may be drawn at a moment’s warning. By it, every member of the community will be sensibly impressed with the solemnity of the crisis and will be prepared for events. The public will be impatient for a decision of the great interests depending. All will be anxious for a restoration of their ordinary pursuits. Our negotiator will be armed with the public sensibility… .
We believe it will be a popular measure with all classes. We are certain that the farmer, the planter, and the mechanic will approve it from the security it offers to the public interests; and if the merchants be as honest and enlightened as we trust they are, they will perceive the indissoluble connection between their solid and permanent prosperity and the general welfare.
Alarming Information: A Letter from the Hon. Timothy Pickering, a Senator of the United States from the State of Massachusetts, exhibiting to his constituents, a view of the imminent danger of an unnecessary and ruinous war, addressed to His Excellency James Sullivan, Governor of said State Connecticut Courant 23 March 1808
The embargo demands the first notice. For perhaps no act of the national government has ever produced so much solicitude or spread such universal alarm. Because all naturally conclude that a measure pregnant with incalculable mischief to all classes of our fellow citizens would not have been proposed by the President and adopted by Congress but for causes deeply affecting the interests and safety of the nation. It must have been under the influence of this opinion that the legislative bodies of some states have expressed their approbation of the Embargo, whether explicitly or by implication… .
In the Senate, … papers were referred to a committee. The committee quickly reported a bill for laying an Embargo, agreeably to the President’s proposal. This was read a first, a second, and a third time, and passed; and all in the short compass of about four hours! A little time was repeatedly asked to obtain further information, and to consider a measure of such moment, of such universal concern; but these requests were denied. We were hurried into the passage of the bill, as if there was danger of its being rejected if we were allowed time to obtain further information and deliberately consider the subject. … In truth, the measure appeared to me then, as it still does, and as it appears to the public, without a sufficient motive, without a legitimate object. Hence the general inquiry—“For what is the Embargo laid?” And I challenge any man not in the secrets of the Executive to tell. I know, Sir, that the President said that the papers aforementioned “showed that great and increasing dangers threatened our vessels, our seamen, and our merchandise:” but I also know that they exhibited no new dangers; none of which our merchants and seamen had not been well apprised. … The great numbers of vessels loading or loaded and prepared for sea; the exertions everywhere made, on the first rumor of the Embargo, to dispatch them, demonstrate the President’s dangers to be imaginary—to have been assumed… .
It is true that considerable numbers of vessels were collected in our ports, and many held in suspense, not, however, from any new dangers which appeared; but from the mysterious conduct of our affairs after the attack on the Chesapeake; and from the painful apprehensions that the course the President was pursuing would terminate in war. The National Intelligencer (usually considered as the Executive newspaper) gave the alarm; and it was echoed through the United States. War, probable or inevitable war, was the constant theme of the newspapers and of the conversations, as was reported, of persons supposed to be best informed of Executive designs. Yet amid this din of war, no adequate preparations were seen making to meet it. … No well informed man doubted that the British Government would make suitable reparation for the attack on the Chesapeake. … And it is now well known that such reparation might have been promptly obtained in London had the President’s instructions to Mr. Monroe been compatible with such an adjustment. He was required not to negotiate on this single, transient act (which when once adjusted was forever settled) but in connection with another claim of long standing and, to say the least, of doubtful right, to wit, the exemption from impressment of British seamen found on board American merchant vessels. To remedy the evil arising from its exercise, by which our own citizens were sometimes impressed, the attention of our government, under every administration, had been earnestly engaged; but no predictable plan has yet been contrived, while no man who regards the truth will question the disposition of the British Government to adopt any arrangement that will secure to Great Britain the services of her own subjects. And now, when the unexampled situation of that country (left alone to maintain the conflict with France and her numerous dependent states—left alone to withstand the power which menaces the liberties of the world) rendered the aid of all her subjects more than ever needful, there was no reasonable ground to expect that she would yield the right to take them when found on board the merchant vessels of any nation. Thus to insist on her yielding this point and inseparably to connect it with the affair of the Chesapeake was tantamount to a determination not to negotiate at all.
I write, Sir, with freedom; for the times are too perilous to allow those who are placed in high and responsible situations to be silent or reserved. The peace and safety of our country are suspended on a thread. The course we have seen pursued leads on to a war—to a war with Great Britain—a war absolutely without necessity—a war which whether disastrous or successful, must bring misery and ruin to the United States: misery by the destruction of our navigation and commerce (perhaps also of our fairest seaport towns and cities), the loss of markets for our produce, the want of foreign goods and manufactures, and the other evils incident to a state of war; and ruin, by the loss of our liberty and independence. For if with the aid of our arms Great Britain were subdued—from that moment (though flattered perhaps with the name of allies) we should become the Provinces of France. This is a result so obvious, that I must crave your pardon for noticing it. Some advocates of Executive measures admit it. They acknowledge that the navy of Britain is our shield against the overwhelming power of France—Why then do they persist in a course of conduct tending to a rupture with Great Britain?—Will it be believed that it is principally, or solely, to procure inviolability to the merchant flag of the United States? In other words, to protect all seamen, British subjects, as well as our own citizens, on board our merchant vessels? It is a fact that this has been made the greatest obstacle to an amicable settlement with Great Britain. Yet (I repeat it) it is perfectly well known that she desires to obtain only her own subjects; and that American citizens, impressed by mistake, are delivered up on duly authenticated proof. The evil we complain of arises from the impossibility of always distinguishing the persons of two nations who a few years since were one people, who exhibit the same manners, speak the same language, and possess similar features. But seeing that we seldom hear complaints in the great navigating states, how happens there to be such extreme sympathy for American seamen at Washington? …
Can gentlemen of known hostility to foreign commerce in our own vessels—who are even willing to annihilate it (and such there are)—can these gentlemen plead the cause of our seamen because they really wish to protect them? Can those desire to protect our seamen who, by laying an unnecessary embargo, expose them by thousands to starve or beg? … But for the Embargo, thousands depending on the ordinary operations of commerce would now be employed. Even under the restraints of the orders of the British Government, retaliating the French imperial decree, very large portions of the world remain open to the commerce of the United States. We may yet pursue our trade with the British dominions in every part of the globe; with Africa, with China, and with the colonies of France, Spain, and Holland. And let me ask, whether in the midst of a profound peace, when the powers of Europe possessing colonies would, as formerly, confine the trade with them to their own bottoms, or admit us, as foreigners, only under great limitations, we could enjoy a commerce much more extensive than is practicable at the moment, if the Embargo were not in the way? Why then should it be continued? Why rather was it ever laid? … Has the French Emperor declared that he will have no neutrals? Has he declared that our ports, like those of his vassal states in Europe, be shut against British commerce? Is the Embargo a substitute, a milder form of compliance, with that harsh demand, which if exhibited in its naked and insulting aspect, the American spirit might yet resent! …
I am alarmed, Sir, at this perilous state of things; I cannot repress my suspicions, or forbear thus to exhibit to you the grounds on which they rest. … I declare to you that I have no confidence in the wisdom or correctness of our public measures; that our country is in imminent danger; that it is essential to the public safety that the blind confidence in our rulers should cease; that the state legislatures should know the facts and reasons on which impor-tant general laws are founded; and especially that those states whose farms are on the ocean, and whose harvests are gathered in every sea, should immediately and seriously consider how to preserve them.
Are our thousands of ships and vessels to rot in our harbors? Are our sixty thousand seamen and fishermen to be deprived of employment and, with their families, reduced to want and beggary? Are our hundreds of thousands of farmers to be compelled to suffer their millions in surplus produce to perish on their hands; that the President may make an experiment on our patience and fortitude and on the towering pride, the boundless ambition, and unyielding perseverance of the Conqueror of Europe? Sir, I have reason to believe that the President contemplates the continuance of the Embargo until the French Emperor repeals his decrees violating as well his treaty with the United States as every neutral right; and until Britain thereupon recalls her retaliating orders! By that time we may have neither ships nor seamen; and that is precisely the point to which some men wish to reduce us… .
Notwithstanding the well-founded complaints of some individuals and the murmurs of others; notwithstanding the frequent executive declarations of maritime aggressions committed by Great Britain; notwithstanding the outrageous decrees of France and Spain and the wanton spoliations practiced and executed by their cruisers and tribunals, of which we sometimes hear a faint whisper, the commerce of the United States has hitherto prospered beyond all example. Our citizens have accumulated wealth; and the public revenue, annually increasing, has been the President’s annual boast.
These facts demonstrate that although Great Britain, with her thousand ships of war, could have destroyed our commerce, she has really done it no essential injury; and that the other belligerents, heretofore restrained by some regard to national law and limited by the small number of their cruisers, have not inflicted upon it any deep wound. Yet in this full tide of success, our commerce is suddenly arrested; an alarm of war is raised; fearful apprehensions are excited; the merchants, in particular, thrown into a state of consternation, are advised, by a voluntary embargo, to keep their vessels at home. … For myself, Sir, I must declare the opinion that no free country was ever before so causelessly, and so blindly, thrown from the height of prosperity and plunged into a state of dreadful anxiety and suffering… .