Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat

By Raymond Walters | Go to book overview

16. The Trouble with
the Embargo 1807=1809

To Thomas Jefferson, the Embargo Act, closing American ports to all international trade, was no ordinary law, no weapon casually taken up for the maritime war with Great Britain. As he assured Gallatin and the other members of the Cabinet on several occasions, it was an experiment of "immense value" for the "future as well as on this occasion" to see whether the United States might bring Great Britain and the other major European nations to terms by denying them our goods and our carrying services.1

Secretary Gallatin, the federal officer whose subordinates were most responsible for enforcing the law, did his utmost to test its potentialities despite his skepticism. Secretary Smith, head of the Navy, was concerned but less directly; he also executed the President's orders, while grumbling volubly that the act was "a mischief-making busybody."2 Secretary Madison, who had cordially assisted Jefferson in sponsoring the law, took virtually no part in enforcement, for his department dealt with other matters.

As soon as the embargo was voted, Gallatin sent out a series of circular letters to all collectors to direct them in the enforcement.3 Even as he did this the difficulties ahead oppressed him. The law was sloppily drafted; it did not provide penalties for violation; it neglected to mention vessels in the coasting trade; it did not prohibit the export of specie to pay for foreign cargoes loaded in the United States. As Gallatin pointed out to the President on December 23, 1807, the day after the law went into effect, these omissions would have to be corrected in order to achieve any degree of success.4 Jefferson agreed, 5 and most of them were corrected--but only after a delay--by several laws, especially the acts of April 25, 1808, and January 9, 1809.6

Trouble broke out almost immediately in the trade along the coast and

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