The History Cat Classroom
Embargo Act of 1803
A Napoleonic Complex
The War of 1812 was a smaller part of a much larger conflict involving an epic clash between Napoleon and the mighty British Empire. During the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), Napoleon Bonaparte was well on his way to conquering the European Continent and the British were desperate to stop him—much like the Republic in Star Wars, but minus the Death Star. For a neutral nation like the United States, war can be big business and American merchants found that supplying both sides led to insane profits. Of course, such actions come with huge risks like having your ships seized or blown to bits.
Not merely content to blow each other up on the battlefield, the British and French got entangled in a high stakes game of economic chicken. Using blockades and embargoes, both sides hoped to destroy their enemy’s economy. Caught in the middle like a tea cup poodle between two hungry mountain lions, were the little Americans. When the British issued the Fox Blockade of the European continent, the French responded with the Berlin Decree, declaring that it was now illegal for any country to trade with Britain. The British countered with the Orders of Council stating that if you traded with the French, you first had stop off in Britain and pay a tax. As if anyone was actually going to do that. The French responded by saying that if you paid the British tax then they would seize your ship. With their mind on the money and money on their mind, American merchants used every trick in the book from false papers, to flying fake flags, to straight up bribery to continue their trade with both the French and British.
Causes of War: Impressment
While the Americans were divided over who sucked more— the British or the French— it was the British who took economic warfare a step further by resorting to kidnapping. For decades the British used a policy known as impressment to deal with the problem of deserters. Press gangs would board a neutral vessel and force anyone suspected of being a runaway back into the service of the Royal Navy. This meant that anyone with a British accent or who showed up for tea time was fair game. Well, this policy didn’t “impress” the Americans much (groan).
Serving in the British Navy was no Sunday picnic. The food sucked –seriously, we’re talking maggot-infested hard tack—, pay was horribly low, and beatings were common for the smallest infraction. No wonder then that many British seamen chose to jump ship to the first American merchant vessel they could board. In Thomas Jefferson’s time nearly one-quarter of all American sailors were Brits who had deserted. Naturally, being short-handed during war, British captains were eager to get their crew back and weren’t afraid to use force if necessary. And since the punishment for desertion was hanging, or at the very least a severe beating, many British sailors did anything they could to go undetected.
In the days before photo ID, Americans were issued a certificate of citizenship that gave a detailed description of the holder. Height, weight, hair color, any scars or visible markings, were included to prove the identity of an American out at sea. Well, if you thought that fake IDs are a modern thing, think again. Americans looking to earn some quick cash were more than happy to sell their papers to desperate British sailors.
As many as six thousand Americans were snatched from aboard their ships by press gangs eager to fill their quotas. While they did find deserters, the press gangs also kidnapped a handful of Americans who happened to ‘look British’. Such was the case of the USS Chesapeake. The Chesapeake was an American naval vessel suspected of taking aboard four British deserters— who naturally claimed that they were Americans. Evidence would later turn up showing that 3 of the 4 were in fact Americans but that didn’t stop Vice Admiral George Cranfield Berkley— commander of the frigate HMS Leopard— from pulling alongside the Chesapeake demanding to search the ship. So, when the Americans told Berkley to get lost the British opened fire, killing three sailors and impressing the four suspects.
Word of the attack spread like wildfire and Americans in every corner were demanding war. Former president John Adams said what was on everyone’s mind. ‘No nation can be Independent which suffers her Citizens to be stolen from her…” The three Americans were returned (the British deserter was hanged in Halifax). And had it not been for some serious apologizing by the British government, we might be writing about the War of 1807. But for all their promises of payments and apologies, the British flat out refused to end the policy of impressment. This issue would have to be settled by a war, and that was still five years down the road.
Make War Not Love
So rather than go to war, Congress decided to do something even more incredibly stupid. Shocking! To punish both the French and British, the United States adopted a non-importation agreement. America closed down its ports to ALL exports and imports. American ships were (legally) banned from trading with anyone, anywhere. What was the congress thinking? As you might expect the Embargo Act of 1807 had the same effect as punching yourself in the face to win an argument.
The American economy totally crashed, exports dropped from $108 million in 1807 to $22 million a year later. Farmers and merchants went into bankruptcy and landed in debtors’ prison. Prices skyrocketed as they always do when merchants are forced to do business on the black market. Realizing the sheer stupidity of the Embargo Act, Congress replaced it with a less severe non-importation act, this time banning trade with only Britain and France; this too, turned out to be a big, fat failure as there was just no practical way in preventing American ships from sneaking over to Europe. Many ships claimed that they had been “blown off course” by a storm and ended up a month later in Europe. Oops!