Jefferson and his cabinet met for several days near the end of November 1807 to survey the deteriorating foreign situation. Diplomacy had failed, leaving three possible courses of action open to the United States: acquiescence in the commercial decrees, war against one or both belligerents, or a total embargo of American trade. Three weeks later Jefferson sent to Congress a confidential message recommending the embargo. Congress moved swiftly and, virtually without debate, passed the Embargo Act on 22 December 1807. A self-blockade of the nation's commerce, it prohibited American vessels from sailing to foreign ports and foreign vessels from loading cargo in the United States. At the same time, the selective Nonimportation Act, adopted in 1806 but heretofore suspended, went into effect. The government thus launched an experiment of incredible magnitude, one that dwarfed all previous undertakings and held momentous consequences for the peace of the United States and perhaps the world.
At the outset no one, certainly not Jefferson, fully understood the implications, or foresaw the problems, of the embargo. The aims and purposes of the policy were unclear. In part, it was simply an honorable alternative to war. In part, however, it was a measure preparatory to war, for almost six months would be required to bring home American ships, cargoes, and seamen on the high seas—a vital resource in the event of war—during which time the resources already at home would be secure. Finally, it was in some part an experiment to test the effectiveness of "peaceable coercion" in international affairs.
The idea that the United States might enforce reason and justice on European nations by restraining or withholding its commerce was a first principle of Jeffersonian statecraft and a leading article of Jeffersonian Republicanism. The dependence of European colonies in the West Indies on American provisions, especially in wartime; the importance of American neutral carriers and their cargoes for European belligerents; and the enormous value of access to the American market, above all to Great Britain, placed in American hands an ultimate weapon of peace, "another umpire than arms," Jefferson believed, that might not only secure his own country from the ravages of war but also, when put to the test, demonstrate the efficacy of peaceable coercion to peoples everywhere. With the passage of time, as the administration persisted in the embargo long after its short-range purposes were achieved, this larger moral and philosophical aim became the primary one.
Jefferson never explained his experiment to the American people. So often ridiculed as a "visionary," he had no desire to run that gauntlet again. As a result, the people were asked to bear hardships and sacrifices for the sake of a policy they never really understood. This was a critical failure of leadership, which was surprising in a president who had a keen appreciation of the educational function of the office.
Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin, with the corps of customs officers, labored diligently to enforce the embargo. As loopholes were disclosed, as problems of control arose, Congress enacted supplementary legislation. Coastal infractions were serious from New York eastward. Along the Canadian frontier, smugglers carried on a brisk trade by boat, wagon, and sled. In April, Jefferson issued a proclamation placing the Lake Champlain region in a state of insurrection. Escalating penalties for violation of the embargo, combined with arbitrary actions to enforce it, ill comported with Jefferson's political principles. Normal federal law enforcement machinery finally proved inadequate in the eastern states, although the embargo was remarkably well obeyed elsewhere.
Measured in economic terms, the embargo's effectiveness was all too obvious. Treasury receipts dwindled, wiping out the large surplus Jefferson had committed to a program of national improvements. Agricultural prices plummeted, with particularly devastating effects in the southern states. As many as thirty thousand seamen were thrown out of work. Although stories of ships rotting at the wharves and grass growing in the streets were doubtless exaggerated, the most dramatic effects of the embargo could be seen in the seaports. Merchants who had made their fortunes in foreign trade began to divert their capital to new manufacturing enterprises. Jefferson rejoiced in this development, appeared at his Fourth of July reception in 1808 in a suit of homespun, and amid all the loss and suffering caused by the embargo found its redeeming economic virtue in the rise of domestic manufactures.
Politically, the embargo had no redeeming virtue. New England Federalists mounted the dragons of discontent in a bold bid to return to power. Their reckless leaders bitterly assailed the embargo as a national disaster. Why had Jefferson called for it? First, they said, because Napoleon had demanded it and Jefferson was his puppet. Second, because of Virginia Republicanism's hostility to northern commerce. Jefferson expressed little concern about political damages at home from the Federalists' attack, but he was deeply worried about its effects abroad. "They are endeavoring to convince England that we suffer more by the embargo than they do, and if they will hold out awhile, we must abandon it." This was a dangerous game, for if they succeeded, Jefferson said, war with Britain must follow—the unintended outcome of their propaganda.
Although enacted as an impartial measure, operating equally on the belligerents, the embargo actually had very unequal effects. Britain necessarily felt it more than France. Jefferson hoped that Napoleon would understand this and, as if in gratitude, revoke his decrees against American commerce and force Spain to cede the Floridas. Instead, the emperor toyed with Jefferson. When American vessels—fugitives from the embargo—entered French ports, he confiscated them and then declared he was only helping Jefferson enforce the embargo.
In the president's diplomatic strategy, success with one power would likely produce success with the other, since neither could risk war with the United States; and if neither power recognized American rights, and the time came to lift the embargo, the United States would choose the enemy. British colonials, merchants, and manufacturers began to feel the effects of the embargo in the spring. A group of liberal Whigs—bankers, merchants, members of Parliament—launched a campaign against the orders-in-council, but they were no match for George Canning and the Tory ministry. Jefferson attributed British obstinacy to two causes. First was the false belief aroused by New England Federalists that the embargo must produce a political revolution in the United States. Second was the astonishing Spanish revolt against Napoleonic domination, which not only revived Great Britain's fortunes in the war but opened vast new markets, in Spain and the colonies, to British commerce.
In this "contest of privations," as Jefferson called it, time was not on the American side. The pressures on Jefferson to yield were both greater and more urgent than the pressures on Canning or Napoleon. How long could the end of peaceable coercion abroad be supported in the face of economic deprivation, loss of liberty, disobedience to law, division of the Union, and Republican collapse at home? Despite rising opposition, Jefferson stood firmly by the policy. Perhaps he recalled his experience in another crisis, when he, as Virginia's governor, was accused of jeopardizing the safety of the commonwealth by feeble and temporizing measures. To Gallatin, who complained that the embargo could be saved only by new and arbitrary enforcement powers, Jefferson replied, "Congress should legalize all means which may be necessary to obtain its end ," not excluding military force.
A storm of protest rolled over New England in the fall, and Federalists trooped back to Congress demanding embargo repeal. Soon several New England Republicans joined them. Unhappily, the president reported the failure of embargo diplomacy in his last State of the Union message, on 8 November 1808. Without indicating any new direction, he asked Congress "to weigh and compare the painful alternatives out of which choice is to be made."
Abandoning the policy to Congress was an act of folly. His own choice was to continue the embargo for six months, with war to follow if necessary; but for the first time in his presidency, he abdicated leadership. Why? "On this occasion," he explained, "I think it is fair to leave to those who are to act on them, the decisions they prefer, being . . . myself but a spectator." Jefferson's retreat from responsibility was hardly a favor to James Madison, his chosen successor. As president-elect, Madison had no authority, and lacking Jefferson's prestige and a sure sense of the right course, he could not give direction to Congress. As a result, policy formation fell to a leaderless herd of the fainthearted, the demoralized, and the disgusted. Finally, Congress enacted repeal of the embargo; it would expire with the expiration of Jefferson's presidency. Its replacement, the Non-intercourse Act, reopened trade with all countries except Britain and France. Neither Jefferson nor Madison approved of this feeble measure. A trade open to the rest of the world was in fact a trade open to Britain and France. Yet Jefferson signed the measure into law. It exposed the United States to all the risks of war without the coercive benefits of the embargo. Its only merit was profit.
Jefferson went into retirement convinced that the embargo, if borne for a while longer, would have forced justice from Britain and therefore put a stop to the long train of degradation that led to the War of 1812. Such an outcome was not absolutely fore-closed, although it found little support in the actual circumstances. Jefferson became a victim of his own idealism. Henry Adams observed, "Few men have dared to legislate as though eternal peace were at hand, in a world torn by wars and convulsions and drowned in blood; but this was what Jefferson aspired to do." And as it failed abroad, the "peace policy" produced at home most of the evils Jefferson feared from war: debt, distress, disobedience, disunionism —in short, the debauchery of Republican principles and hopes. Continued adherence to the embargo in these circumstances would have required more power than the government could command and more obedience than a free people could give.