Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 62 Embargo

Jefferson now had his Embargo. The question was, what was he going to do with it, and what would the repercussions be? The law declared that all ships within the jurisdiction of the United States, with the exception of departing foreign ships, could not sail for any foreign port; and those which intended only to engage in coastwise trade must give a bond that their destination was actually as stated. This last, incidentally, was to furnish a loophole for evasion which gave the government many a headache.

The law had been rushed through with a minimum of consideration and with practically no debate in the Senate. Those who, like Senator John Quincy Adams, had expressed doubts over its necessity on the strength of the papers submitted by the President, were assured that Jefferson wished it merely as an aid in the forthcoming negotiations with the British special envoy. But Adams, though yielding, suspected other reasons which did nor appear on the surface. He was correct; for Jefferson knew--and had nor seen fit to disclose it to Congress--of the impending British decree imposing a blockade on alt French ports, including those of her colonies and allies.1

As time went on, Congress passed supplementary acts to both the Embargo and the Nonimportation Laws, tightening the regulations and increasing the penalties in order re plug loopholes as they appeared. One such, in particular, was the suddenly increased overland trade with Canada, and a law was enacted forbidding exports by land as well as by sea.2

Jefferson justified the Embargo Act on the basis of the British order of November 14, 1807. "If we had suffered our vessels, cargoes and seamen to have gone out," he asserted, "all would have been taken by England or its enemies, and we must have gone to war to avenge the wrong. It was certainly a better alternative to discontinue all intercourse with these nations till they shall return again to some sense of moral right."3

Yet, oddly enough, the very people he was so assiduously protecting-- the shipowners, the merchants and the seamen-protested to the skies against the limitations on their movements and the total destruction of their means of livelihood. They were willing to take their chances with foreign search, blockades, restrictions and even confiscations, It was better to take the risk than to sit supinely back and face inevitable ruin. The prohts to be made on any cargo that did get through were enormous,

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