We have seen that America got out of the War of 1812 as well as it did because the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1814. That ended the need for naval impressment and blockades, and it let the British realize the extent of their own war-weariness. But what if war between the United States and Great Britain had come five years earlier? America barely staggered through two years of war. Could it have survived seven? If not for Jefferson’s creative diplomacy, we might have found out.
All through America’s earliest years, America watched the world’s two most powerful empires fighting to the death. Every year, it got harder to stay uninvolved. In the 1790s, as we shall see, we only narrowly avoided war with France. But American shipping, and in fact American nationhood, was under pressure from the British Empire, in the person of the royal navy, every year during this whole time.
The Naval Battle of Trafalgar, in October, 1805, destroyed the French and Spanish fleets and left Britain mistress of the seas, But in December, the land battle of Austerlitz made the French army masters of the mainland. Deadlock. In the absence of a way for the whale to fight the lion, both sides turned to using trade as a weapon, each seeking to strangle the other economically. Naturally the big losers were the neutrals, and guess who had the largest neutral merchant fleet. Britain insisted that American ships trade through British ports before proceeding to Europe. France seized American ships that obeyed British regulations in defiance of the French paper blockade.
After Trafalgar, the British navy acted with ever-greater arrogance and ruthlessness. Thousands of American seamen were impressed into service – in essence, slavery — on British warships. American merchantmen were made to submit to examination within American waters, and many were seized, with their cargo, as contraband of war. Might was making right, without even a fig leaf. Americans seethed, but put up with it, seeing no choice. And then it got ever worse. In June, 1807, HMS Leopard, looking for deserters, attacked and boarded USS Chesapeake, an American frigate, outside the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.
How should America respond? By declaring war? Jefferson’s generation knew all about war. They had experienced the hazards of risking your life, your fortune and your sacred honor. Unlike the War Hawks of the next generation, they knew that war wasn’t anything to undertake lightly. America had only a few frigates, as opposed to England’s navy of hundreds of warships.
But if not war, what? Should the country – could the country — shrug its shoulders when its warship was attacked? Would this not amount to an open invitation to further and greater depredations, and might it not risk jeopardizing the nation’s existence quite as much as war? If only there were some response between war and inactivity.
There was, and Jefferson found it, or perhaps we should say invented it. His creative response was an experiment in economic warfare. Congress had already passed an act that refused entry to many British goods. In December, 1807, he recommended a full embargo, prohibiting all American ships from departing for a foreign port. The Embargo Act passed, and he signed it into law before the end of the year.
It was s drastic step, unprecedented, hazardous, unpredictable and ultimately unpopular – but then, the same could be said of war. It amounted to a unilateral shutting-down of America’s foreign trade, in the hope that either France or Britain or both would find the cost to their economy too great to bear. With luck, the resulting economic hardship would force one or both nations to stop harassing American shipping, and would force the British to end its practice of impressment.
Well, it didn’t. New Englanders conducted as much illicit trade as they could get away with. Border communities engaged in large-scale illicit trade across the Canadian border. The British picked up as much of America’s perforce abandoned foreign trade as it could. As it turned out, the embargo hurt various aspects of the American economy, yet proved ineffective in coercing either the British or French into changing policies.
Might it have worked, if more Americans had cooperated? Impossible to say. All areas of the United States suffered: shipping interests in New England and the Middle Atlantic states, and agricultural interests, particularly in the South. But if there ever was a chance, it was destroyed by the extensive smuggling operations that undercut it.
In Jefferson’s last months in office, his long successful leadership over Congress frayed, as the representatives naturally turned their eyes from their long time leader and turned to the man entering office. The embargo was revoked on March 1, 1809, three days before Jefferson left office. Historians often consider the Embargo to have been a failure, and perhaps they are right. The question remains, though. If Jefferson had not tried his great experiment, is there any reason to think the British would not have gone to ever newer extremes of coercion? And if those incursions had led the country into war five years earlier than happened in fact – seven long years before the overthrow of Napoleon removed what Britain saw as the necessity for conscription and economic warfare – would the country have survived?