ISSUES IN WEST KENTUCKY,
WHEN THE Lewis family arrived in west Kentucky in 1808 the three interwoven issues that most affected the local citizens were the economic depression, impending war with England, and national politics.1 Of immediate concern was the severe nationwide trade crisis.
The preceding few years had been marked by business instability. There were a few brief periods of optimism, but these merely set off an otherwise dismal time for all American commerce. America was not the master of her economy, for her prosperity depended upon foreign trade. Events in Europe, primarily the continuing war between France and England, and their efforts to blockade and cripple each other economically, made tatters of American business.2 During this period the British seized over five hundred American ships, and the French took nearly four hundred.3 America was outraged, and Jefferson, overestimating the British and French need for American goods, declared an embargo that forbade almost all American commerce with these foreign nations.4 The results were disastrous, not to Europe, but to America, whose markets were seriously disrupted. The seaports and maritime industries suffered most, but inland the prices of wheat, tobacco, cotton, and hemp, fell so far that, in some cases, the farmers refused to sell. In general, the embargo reduced legitimate trade to onefourth of the amount transacted in 1807.5
Along the cities of the seaboard, and particularly in the northeast, the reaction to Jefferson's policy was intensely critical. The Embargo, a satirical poem written by William Cullen Bryant when he was just thirteen, epitomizes this reaction:
Th' Embargo rages, like a sweeping wind,
Fear lowers before, and famine stalks behind.
What words, oh Muse! can paint the mournful scene,
The saddening street, the desolated green;
How hungry labourers leave their toil and sigh,
And sorrow droops in each desponding eye!