EMBARGO ACT. The Embargo Act, passed by the U. S. Congress in 1807, was a self-imposed prohibition on trade with Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. It was President Thomas Jefferson‘s response to the maritime depredations against U. S. shipping by Britain and France. As a result of France’s blockade and Britain’s counter-blockade the United States had the apparent choice of war or acquiescence. War, had it begun in 1807, would have been directed against the British, who had aroused American passions that summer by boarding the warship Chesapeake and impressing four of its crew into British service.
To avert a war for which the nation was unprepared, Jefferson introduced the embargo as a means of economic coercion potentially more effective and less costly than military coercion. By this act the United States would end risks of war by barring ali exports to Europe until the belligerents should withdraw their unlawful measures against American commerce. Superficially, it was an impartial action. But in practice, Britain rather than France was its major target, because Britain was dependent on American supplies for survival. In the guise of neutrality Jefferson struck at the nation he deemed more dangerous to American security because of its naval power. At the same time he hoped that Napoleon would reward the United States for its indirect service by persuading Spain to cede the Floridas.
The Embargo Act failed. It was repealed in 1809, 4 days before Jefferson’s term expired, after 15 months in operation. The U. S. economy suffered more acutely than the British. Parts of the nation, especially New England, threatened secession over the embargo, and France refused to recognize the usefulness of the embargo to its war plans. Successive nonintercourse laws in 1809 and 1810 were no more successful than the Embarşo Act in reconciling U. S. neutrality with Britain s war needs. Their failure led to the War of 1812.