Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 63 Embargo's End

BY the beginning of August, 1808, Gallatin openly threw up his hands. "The embargo is now defeated. . ." he exclaimed to Jefferson, "by open violations, by vessels sailing without any clearances whatever; an evil which under the existing law we cannot oppose in any way but by cruisers."1 Even though Smith was giving orders for the use of the navy, both Gallatin and the Secretary of Navy were equally gloomy over the entire picture. New York harbor might be shut up, but every other port blazed with revolt.

In all the welter of defiance, disobedience and complaints from Federalists and Republicans alike, only a single and unexpected affirmative support came to the harried President. William Plumer of New Hampshire, who had left the Senate to become Governor of his native state, and who was shifting from the Federalist party to the Republican, sent him a heartening message not only of approval for the embargo, but expressing the hope that New Hampshire would return a group of well-wishers to Congress in the next election.2 But one swallow does not make a summer.

Jefferson was at the time on vacation at Monticello, and was discovering that his beloved Virginia was in almost as great a ferment as Federalist New England. The Embargo had hit the agricultural states as hard as the mercantile ones; an effect he had not anticipated. Tobacco had become practically worthless, and the warehouses were bulging with the year's crop. Wheat had fallen precipitously from a former two dollars a bushel to a mere pittance of seven cents. Land values were being swept away, and those planters who had counted themselves rich now found themselves with useless assets on their hands and a mountainous pile of debts. Even Wilson Cary Nicholas, most faithful of Jefferson's supporters, was "I beginning to wonder, f the embargo could be executed and the people would submit to it," he told Jefferson tactfully, "I have no doubt it is our wisest course; but if the complete execution of it and the support of the people cannot be counted upon, it will neither answer our purpose nor will it be practicable to retain it."3 Monroe still smarting under the insults he fancied had been heaped upon him and ambitious for the Presidency, was practically in the opposition. "We seem now to be approaching a great crisis," he told Nicholson glumly.

"Such is the state of our affairs, and such the compromitment of the Administration at home and abroad by its measures, that it seems likely that it will experience a great difficulty in extricating itself . . . .We are invited

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