Forty-one years ago, President Kennedy had the occasion to honor Nobel Prize winners at the White House in late April. When giving the toast, he proclaimed: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House...with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence was our third President and considered the greatest President in United States history. However, the Embargo Act of 1807-1809 caused him to leave office resented by many Americans. Many of these people believe him to have violated the individual liberty of American citizens that he had championed throughout his career. A successful study of his motives in initiating the embargo and its eventual manifestation is essential to understanding Jefferson and the early history of American trade and foreign policy.
Jefferson was a classical liberal and perhaps the foremost moral and political authority of his day. As a thirty-three-year-old lawyer and delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson was almost singularly responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence. Far from a mere announcement of the young nation's sovereignty, the Declaration served as a mission statement, relying heavily on John Locke and other philosophers to provide a legal case for the country's existence. Subsequently, Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia and Secretary of State. Because the Articles of Confederation left the United States without a strong executive (as was evidenced by the obscurity of Peyton Randolph, its first President,) it can be argued that the Virginia governorship was the most powerful executive role prior to the establishment of the Presidency.
According to Louis Sears in his book Jefferson and the Embargo, "The European belligerents, Great Britain and France, locked in a death grapple for world power, recognized no neutral right they felt bound to respect, and the bankrupt diplomacy of each spurned with utter fatuity a good will which should have been invaluable." (Sears, Pg. 3) Jefferson's experience with the two combatants against which sanctions were issued, Britain and France, were second only to that of Benjamin Franklin and second to none following Franklin's death. Although trade sanctions undermined his essentially libertarian value system, Jefferson felt that such measures were essential to avoiding war with the European powers.
The final decades of the 18th century saw Jefferson as sympathetic both to France and to its revolution. However, manufacturing innovations had lead Great Britain to produce textiles and other manufactured goods less expensively than American and French manufacturers. These manufacturers became loathe to all competition and would protest the ancien regime's trade concessions to the Americans, both in France and in San Dominigue. (Haiti) The latter had become a large foreign market for American products following independence.
Jefferson at once supported free trade and denounced the actions of what he called 'monocrats;' monarchists in Europe and federalists at home in the United States. Jefferson also detested Britain, which was seen as both the chief threat to American independence and the principal beneficiary of maritime trade. After Britain lost the United States, free market interests in England compelled parliament to abandon its mercantilist principles. This helped shape the schism between Federalists and Republicans (Democratic-Republicans) in the United States. According to Jefferson, "The liberty of the whole earth, was depending on the issue of the contest" between monarchy and republicanism." (Kaplan, pg. 51)
France's new government, unfortunately, was no quicker to adopt free trade (which Jefferson thought of as derivative of the Lockean right of commercial interests to liberty and property) than the monarchy had been. The terror all but destroyed Jefferson's hopes for a new France modeled after the American Republic. According to Kaplan, "It was the fulfillment of all the warnings he had given to his friends about the consequences of pushing reforms too fast. Should the mobs of Paris control the movement, he had cautioned, they would not be able to absorb their new liberties and would eventually find themselves enslaved once again, by the lies of a demagogue if not by the arms of a king." (Kaplan, pg. 50) By this time, however, Jefferson had returned to the United States to assume his role as Secretary of State, and was powerless to rally against Jacobin radicalism.
Napoleon, although a picture of the demagoguery Jefferson warned of, was quick to act as a silent partner to his fellow republic and her President. Jefferson's territorial ambitions compelled him to purchase Louisiana and attempt the purchase of western Florida (the coast of Mississippi and Alabama, and parts of Louisiana) from Europe's new emperor. According to Kaplan, "Even the possibility of total victory for the French tyrant did not jar the American president from his complacency. He preferred to deal with a present evil than with a "future hypothetical one." He was willing to leave the future to the "chapter of accidents" which had hitherto been so kind to the fortunes of the United States." (Kaplan, pg. 107)
Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana had been fortuitous, as the possessor of New Orleans stood to command the wealth of the Mississippi drainage basin. It was estimated at the time that New Orleans would become the country's largest city given its importance in terms of river and maritime trade. At the time, San Dominigue, which had been France's most important overseas possession, was in tatters following successful slave revolts. This eliminated the concern of American merchant interests vis-a-vis French trade policy in the Caribbean. Britain's blockade of Europe and the French Empire's continental system had re-established the balance of power: almost all of America's commerce was with Britain. However, Jefferson remained committed to the defeat of tyrants, and said of Napoleon that he was "the first and chiefest apostle of the desolation of men and morals." And of the conflict between he and the King of England that "One man bestriding the continent of Europe like a Colossus, and another roaming unbridled on the ocean" was an evil spectacle. "But even this is better than that one should rule both elements. Our wish ought to be that he who has armies may not have the dominion of the sea, and that he who has dominion of the sea may be one who has no armies." (Jefferson, 1806)
France was economically insignificant to American exporters given the blockade. Blockade-runners, which had existed since the time of the Stamp Act, threatened the delicate peace between England and the United States during the Non-Importation act, which sought to limit trade with Britain during the blockade. Support of the British was seen as an inexcusable endorsement of what remained of England's colonial empire. However, trade with Britain was seen as essential to New England's commercial interests, which supplied the timber and hemp that helped define England's naval power. Jefferson sought to avoid provoking one side or the other to war, opting to preserve American neutrality.
In June of 1807, British deserters enlisted on board the American frigate Chesapeake and became American seamen. Enraged, the British Vice-Admiral Berkeley sent the warship Leopard to intercept the Chesapeake. The Leopard demanded that the American ship hand over the deserters, a demand that was refused. When the Americans did not comply, the British ship fired, killing three. The Chesapeake was forced to let the British board the ship and reclaim the deserters. In response, America demanded that Britain cease taking such actions against her navy, warning that either war or some form of commercial retaliation would result from non-compliance.
Britain had drafted a treaty in 1807: the Monroe and Pinkney treaty (Horseman, Pg. 93) which Jefferson failed to sign because it didn't address this issue. In Britain, "1806 had been a year of reprieve for the Americans, because the Whigs, impotent as they were to achieve a fundamental improvement in Anglo-American relations, were at least making every effort to avoid increasing American irritation." (Horseman, Pg. 94)
The Whigs, Britain's liberal party, represented the country's commercial interests and merchants whereas the Tories were royalists and naturally mercantilist and anti-republican. Whereas the Whigs only wished for American commercial interests to refrain from trade between enemy ports, the Tories sought reprisal for any trade between neutral countries and the continent. Since the Monroe-Pinkney treaty, which was seen as ameliorative to American interests and endorsed by Whigs, did not address impressments, Jefferson felt that the Tories would be no more amenable.
However, Jefferson wished it to be known that America's pacifism was not a show of weakness but rather an expression of the republican virtues that precluded America from entangling alliances. "The love of peace which we sincerely feel and profess, has begun to produce an opinion in Europe that our government is entirely in Quaker principles, & will turn the left cheek when the right has been smitten. This opinion must be corrected when just occasion arises, or we shall become the plunder of all nations." (Jefferson to Judge Cooper, 1806)
Jefferson saw the embargo as a peaceful alternative to war that would show…