Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thomas Jefferson and the Passage of the First Embargo Act

In Prologue to War: England and the United States 1805-1812, Bradford Perkins highlights the unseemly haste with which the Tenth Congress acceded to the recommendation of President Jefferson to enact an embargo law.

On Friday December 18, 1807 the president transmitted the following message to Congress requesting embargo legislation:
To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States:

The communications now made, showing the great and increasing dangers with which our vessels, our seamen, and merchandise, are threatened on the high seas and elsewhere, from the belligerent Powers of Europe, and it being of the greatest importance to keep in safety these essential resources, I deem it my duty to recommend the subject to the consideration of Congress, who will doubtless perceive all the advantages which may be expected from an inhibition of the departure of our vessels from the ports of the United States.

Their wisdom will also see the necessity of making every preparation for whatever events may grow out of the present crisis.


“The Senate rushed the Embargo through in one afternoon.” “Four or five hours after Jefferson recommended an embargo, the Senate had done his bidding.”

Things took slightly longer in the House, but not much. The Senate bill arrived on Friday afternoon and was debated Saturday December 19. “[O]ver the Sunday recess the administration brought pressure to bear on Republican legislators.” On the evening of Monday November 21 “the House approved the bill by almost two to one.”

Jefferson signed the Embargo Act – formally entitled An Act laying an Embargo on all ships and vessels in the ports and harbors of the United States – into law the next afternoon, Tuesday November 22, 1807. Perkins comments:
The act was scarcely more than a sketch of a policy. . . . Jefferson had secured his object, had pressured the Congress into passage of the act without revealing his own motives. But if he should fail either to advance to war or to secure British – and French – relaxation of the assault upon American commerce, the President's magnificent feat of legislative dexterity would turn to ashes in his mouth.

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