The Embargo Act

Jefferson hoped his embargo would both protect American ships and commerce and convince the belligerent powers of Europe to cease their harassment of American shipping. Why might this policy have failed? In what ways did the embargo fulfill the idea that America was an exceptional nation, a “new order for the ages”? President Jefferson ordered a crackdown against smugglers defying the embargo. In what ways might those who were breaking the embargo law argue that they were acting consonant with the nation’s founding principles and practices?
Did Jefferson’s decision to avoid war through an economic embargo incorporate elements of Washington’s Farewell Address, with its warnings against “entanglements” in the conflicts of Europe? In the instance of the embargo, was Jefferson being consistent with the arguments he made twenty years earlier in Notes on the State of Virginia? (See Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine.)

No related resources


President Thomas Jefferson was determined to shrink the size of the federal government and produce balanced budgets. A committed pacifist, he considered military expenditures to be a waste of national resources and a potential threat to liberty, so military spending bore the brunt of his budget cuts. Consequently, he frequently looked for means to project American influence abroad using options less expensive than conventional military forces.
Despite Jefferson’s best efforts, the Napoleonic Wars threatened to drag the United States once again into a conflict between Britain and France, and in fact came close to doing so on June 22, 1807, when HMS Leopard fired upon the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. The American warship took three broadsides that killed three American sailors and wounded eighteen others while managing to fire only one shot in return. The Chesapeake quickly surrendered, and a British search party boarded the ship and removed four suspected deserters. The Chesapeake Affair was seen as an embarrassment to the Navy and an affront to America’s honor.
In the wake of the incident Jefferson noted that not “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.” Jefferson retaliated by implementing an economic embargo designed to deprive Great Britain of American goods. In this brief message delivered on December 18, Jefferson urged Congress to act, which it did four days later by passing the Embargo Act of 1807. Trade between the United States and the belligerent powers of Europe was for all practical purposes prohibited.
Enforcement of the embargo proved impossible, particularly in New England, whose economy was based on maritime commerce. Widespread smuggling operations became commonplace. In April 1808 Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering strict enforcement of the embargo in an effort to halt the persistent smuggling. In the end, the embargo proved ineffective, crippling the American economy but having minimal impact abroad. But the attractiveness of economic weapons to American policymakers lived on, and the United States has habitually resorted to economic sanctions in hopes of influencing the behavior of other nations without having recourse to military coercion.

—Stephen F. Knott

President Thomas Jefferson, Message to Congress on the Embargo, December 17, 1807, Annals of Congress, Senate, 10th Congress, 1st session, 49–50, A Century of Lawmaking, Library of Congress,;

“Proclamation on the Embargo, 19 April 1808,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Message to Congress on the Embargo, December 18, 1807

The following message was received from the president of the United States:
To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States:
The communications now made, showing the great and increasing dangers with which our vessels, our seamen and merchandise are threatened, on the high seas and elsewhere, from the belligerent powers of Europe, and it being of the greatest importance to keep in safety these essential resources, I deem it my duty to recommend the subject [embargo] to the consideration of Congress, who will doubtless perceive all the advantage which may be expected from an inhibition of the departure of our vessels from the ports of the United States.
Their wisdom will also see the necessity of making every preparation for whatever events may grow out of the present crisis….

Proclamation on the Embargo, April 19, 1808

Whereas information has been received that sundry persons are combined or combining & confederating together on Lake Champlain & the country thereto adjacent for the purposes of forming insurrections against the authority of the laws of the U.S. for opposing the same & obstructing their execution, and that such combinations are too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by the laws of the U.S.
Now therefore to the end that the authority of the laws may be maintained, & that those concerned directly or indirectly in any insurrection or combination against the same may be duly warned, I have issued this my proclamation, hereby commanding such insurgents and all concerned in such combinations, instantly & without delay to disperse & retire peaceably to their respective abodes: and I do hereby further require & command all officers having authority civil or military, and all other persons civil or military who shall be found within the vicinage [vicinity] of such insurrections or combinations, to be aiding and assisting by all the means in their power by force of arms or otherwise to quell & subdue such insurrections or combinations, to seize upon all those therein concerned who shall not instantly and without delay disperse & retire to their respective abodes, and to deliver them over to the civil authority of the place to be proceeded against according to law….

Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.