The Embargo Act of 1807 was an attempt by President Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Congress to punish Britain and France for interfering with American trade while the two major European powers were at war with each other.
The law, which was passed after sailors from the USS Chesapeake were impressed by officers from the British ship HMS Leopard, ultimately failed to achieve its objective. By barring American ships from using European ports, it stifled American trade, and wound up doing more damage to American merchants than to European governments.
Jefferson had hoped that the law would prevent a war between the United States and Britain. The Embargo Act, which was passed in December 1807, did prevent open warfare for a time. But in some ways it was also a precursor to the War of 1812.
Response to the Embargo
With the embargo in place, American exports declined by 75 percent, and imports declined by 50 percent. American merchants, who had been gaining in prosperity, were dealt a severe setback.
Yet Britain and France, locked in the Napoleonic Wars, were not greatly damaged by the loss of trade with Americans. So the embargo clearly backfired on Americans.
The western states in the Union were relatively unaffected. But some parts of the country were hit hard. Cotton growers in the South lost their British market. And merchants in New England suffered.
And one result of the embargo was that smuggling increased across the border with Canada. And smuggling by ship also became prevalent. So the law was not only ineffective, but it was difficult to enforce.
It served to make Jefferson fairly unpopular near the end of his presidency. There were sustained economic effects that did not change until the end of the War of 1812.
End of the Embargo
The embargo was repealed by Congress early in 1809, just days before the end of Jefferson's presidency. It was replaced by a less restrictive piece of legislation, the Non-Intercourse Act, which prohibited trade with Britain and France.
The newer law was no more successful than the Embargo Act had been. And relations with Britain continued to fray until, three years later, President James Madison obtained a declaration of war from Congress and the War of 1812 began.