Friday, October 30, 2009

The 1807 Embargo Says, "Ouch!"

Bradford Perkins' analysis of the policies pursued by the British and Americans in the period leading up to the War of 1812 is a model of subtlety. Reviewing each decision, he carefully looks at the facts and assumptions that underlay it, turning them over to show how a closer examination might make them seem to appear very different, leading to a different decision.

At the same time, subtle analysis can produce rather brutal conclusions. Here are Prof. Perkins' closing thoughts on the Jeffersonian Embargo of 1807-1809:
[Jefferson's] most ambitious venture in foreign policy had failed, save only in perhaps delaying the outbreak of war with England - and that, until a less favorable time. The Embargo imposed many of the disadvantages of war on the nation by destroying trade; it secured none of the prospective advantages, such as the conquest of territory or the capture of enemy ships and commerce at sea. Diplomatically, Jefferson failed either to coerce or seduce the European belligerents. Economically, the Embargo proved ruinous at home. Politically, it encouraged fissiparous tendencies in Republicanism and temporarily reinvigorated the most unpleasant forms of Federalism. If Jefferson had acted strongly at the opening of his last Congress [in December 1807], he might have achieved an acceptable substitute for the Embargo. By his inertia he was negatively responsible for its continuation until February, 1809, and for the disgraceful scenes of humiliation and panic which sullied America's reputation for years.

About the illustration:
In this satirical [1809] cartoon, "Intercourse or Impartial Dealings," President Jefferson is depicted as being held up for money by Napoleon and King George. Critics of Jefferson believed that he had paid too much for Louisiana and was prepared to pay too much for the Floridas. This cartoon also satirizes the failure of Jefferson's use of the embargo and restrictions on trade as a curb on French and British depredations of American shipping.

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