By 1805 the struggle between England and France had deteriorated into a war of economic retribution, as each side attempted to starve the other into submission. When the British issued orders imposing a blockade on the coast of Europe, Napoleon retaliated with the Continental System, a pair of decrees that prohibited British trade with the continent and threatened seizure of neutral vessels trading with England. The U.S. was in the middle of the economic vise. Lacking a navy after the defeat of at the Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon was forced to confine his efforts to U S. vessels in French ports. The attention of the U.S. was directed primarily at British actions on the high seas that violated international law.
Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison were determined to enforce a recognition of American rights by commercial retaliation. A nonimportation act adopted by Congress in 1806 excluded from the U.S. a limited variety of British manufactured goods. The operation of the act was delayed for a year pending negotiations for a settlement. In June, 1807 Anglo-American relations deteriorated when the British fired upon the U.S. warship Chesapeake and forced it to submit to a search for British deserters. Impressment, previously confined to American merchant vessels, was thus extended to a public armed vessel of the United States. Amid a general clamor for war, Jefferson opted for an economic response.
At Jefferson’s request the two houses of Congress passed the Embargo Act in December 1807. All U.S. ports were closed to export shipping in either U.S. or foreign vessels, and restrictions were placed on imports from Great Britain. The act was a hardship on U.S. farmers and New England and New York mercantile and maritime interests. Its effects in Europe were not what Jefferson had hoped. French and British dealers in U.S. cotton were able to raise prices, while the stock already on hand lasted; the embargo would have had to endure until these inventories were exhausted.
Confronted by bitter opposition, Jefferson on March 1, 1809 (two days before the end of his second term), signed the Non-Intercourse Act, permitting U.S. trade with countries other than France and Great Britain. U.S. trade restrictions were rolled back entirely by Macon’s Bill No. 2 (1810), which authorized the president, upon normalization of commercial relations with either England or France, to reinstate non-intercourse against the other. Napoleon announced that his decrees were repealed, insofar as they affected the United States. After waiting several months for a similar response from England, Madison—who had succeeded Jefferson as president—prohibited trade with Great Britain in February 1811. That action helped set the stage for the War of 1812.
Source: Embargo Act
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