History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/Second/II:7

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Chapter 7: The Embargo[edit]

Such was the situation October 26, when Congress assembled in obedience to the President's call. An unusually large number of members attended on the opening day, when for the first time the House was installed in a chamber of its own. After seven years of residence at Washington, the government had so far completed the south wing of the Capitol as to open it for use. A covered way of rough boards still connected the Senate Chamber in the north wing with the Chamber of Representatives in the southern extension of the building, and no one could foresee the time when the central structure, with its intended dome, would be finished; but the new chamber gave proof that the task was not hopeless. With extraordinary agreement every one admitted that Jefferson's and Latrobe's combined genius had resulted in the construction of a room equal to any in the world for beauty and size. The oval hall, with its girdle of fluted sandstone columns draped with crimson curtains, its painted ceiling, with alternate squares of glass, produced an effect of magnificence which was long remembered. Unfortunately, this splendor had drawbacks. Many and bitter were Randolph's complaints of the echoes and acoustic defects which marred the usefulness of the chamber.

That Randolph should feel no love for it was natural. The first scene it witnessed was that of his overthrow. Macon, who for six years had filled the chair, retired without a contest, dragged down by Randolph's weight; and of the one hundred and seventeen members present, fifty-nine, a bare majority, elected Joseph Bradley Varnum of Massachusetts their Speaker; while the minority of fifty-eight scattered their votes among half-a-dozen candidates. Varnum, ignoring Randolph, appointed George Washington Campbell of Tennessee chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Troublesome as the Virginia leader had been, he was still the only member competent to control the House, and his fall was greatly regretted by at least one member of the Cabinet. "Varnum has, much against my wishes, removed Randolph from the Ways and Means, and appointed Campbell of Tennessee," wrote Gallatin.[1] "It was improper as related to the public business, and will give me additional labor."

October 27 the President's Message was read.

"The love of peace," it began, "so much cherished in the bosoms of our citizens, which has so long guided the proceedings of their public councils and induced forbearance under so many wrongs, may not insure our continuance in the quiet pursuits of industry."

An account of Monroe's negotiation and treaty followed this threatening preamble; and the warmest friends of Monroe and Pinkney could hardly find fault with the President's gentle comments on their conduct.

"After long and fruitless endeavors to effect the purposes of their mission, and to obtain arrangements within the limits of their instructions, they concluded to sign such as could be obtained, and to send them for consideration; candidly declaring to their other negotiators, at the same time, that they were acting against their instructions, and that their Government, therefore, could not be pledged for ratification."

The provisions of the proposed treaty proved to be, in certain points, "too highly disadvantageous," and the minister had been instructed to renew negotiation. The attack on the "Chesapeake" followed, aggravated by the defiant conduct of the British commanders at Norfolk. Lord Howick's Order in Council had swept away by seizures and condemnations the American trade in the Mediterranean. Spain, too, had issued a decree in conformity with Napoleon's decree of Berlin. Of France alone no complaint was made, and the President could even say that commerce and friendly intercourse had been maintained with her on their usual footing. He had not yet heard of the seizures made two months before, by Napoleon's order, in the ports of Holland.

In the face of these alarming events, it had been thought better to concentrate all defensive resources on New York, Charleston, and New Orleans; to purchase such military stores as were wanted in excess of the supply on hand; to call all the gunboats into service, and to warn the States to be ready with their quotas of militia. "Whether a regular army is to be raised, and to what extent, must depend on the information so shortly expected."

If this language had the meaning which in other times and countries would have been taken for granted, it implied a resort to measures of force against foreign aggressions; yet neither the President nor his party intended the use of force, except for self-defence in case of actual invasion. The Message was, in reality, silent in regard to peace and war. The time had not yet come for avowing a policy; but even had the crisis been actually at hand, Jefferson would not have assumed the responsibility of pointing out a policy to Congress. The influence he exerted could rarely be seen in his official and public language; it took shape in private, in the incessant talk that went on, without witnesses, at the White House.

More pointed than the allusion to England was the menace to Chief-Justice Marshall. The threat against the court, which the President made in the summer, reappeared in the Message as a distinct invitation to Congress.

"I shall think it my duty to lay before you the proceedings and the evidence publicly exhibited on the arraignment of the principal offenders before the Circuit Court of Virginia. You will be enabled to judge whether the defect was in the testimony or in the law, or in the administration of the law; and wherever it shall be found, the Legislature alone can apply or originate the remedy. The framers of our Constitution certainly supposed they had guarded as well their government against destruction by treason, as their citizens against oppression under pretence of it; and if these ends are not attained, it is important to inquire by what means more effectual they may be secured."

This strong hint was quickly followed up. Burr's trial at Richmond had hardly closed when the President sent this Message to Congress; and within another month, November 23, another Message was sent, conveying a copy of the evidence and judicial opinions given at the trial, on which Congressional action might be taken.

So far as concerned foreign relations, no one could say with certainty whether the Annual Message leaned toward war or toward peace; but Gallatin's Report, which followed November 5, could be understood only as an argument to show that if war was to be made at all, it should be made at once. The Treasury had a balance of seven or eight millions in specie; the national credit was intact; taxes were not yet reduced; the Bank was still in active existence; various incidental resources were within reach; the first year of war would require neither increase of debt nor of taxation, and for subsequent years loans, founded on increased customs duties, would suffice. Calmly and easily Gallatin yielded to the impulse of the time, and dropping the objects for which—as he said—he had been brought into office, took up again the heavy load of taxation and debt which his life had been devoted to lightening. No one could have supposed, from his language in 1807, that within only ten years he and his party had regarded debt as fatal to freedom and virtue.

"An addition to the debt is doubtless an evil," he informed Congress; "but experience having now shown with what rapid progress the revenue of the Union increases in time of peace, with what facility the debt formerly contracted has in a few years been reduced, a hope may confidently be entertained that all the evils of the war will be temporary and easily repaired, and that the return of peace will, without any effort, afford ample resources for reimbursing whatever may have been borrowed during the war."

If Gallatin was so willing to abandon his dogma, the Federalists might at least be forgiven for asking why he had taken it up. For what practical object had he left the country helpless and defenceless for six years in order to pay off in driblets the capital of a petty debt which, within much less than a century, could be paid in full from the surplus of a single year? The success of his policy depended on the correctness of Jefferson's doctrine, that foreign nations could be coerced by peaceable means into respect for neutral rights; but Gallatin seemed to have already abandoned the theory of peaceable coercion before it had been tried.

The same conflict of ideas was felt in Congress, which had nothing to do but to wait for news from Europe that did not arrive. The month of November was passed in purposeless debate. That the time had come when some policy must be adopted for defending the coasts and frontiers was conceded, but no policy could be contrived which satisfied at once the economical and the military wants of the country. In this chaos of opinions, Jefferson alone held fixed theories; and as usual his opinions prevailed. He preferred gunboats to other forms of armament, and he had his way.

The Cabinet had not adopted the gunboat policy without protest. When in the preceding month of February the President sent to Congress his Message recommending that two hundred gunboats should be built, at a cost, as Gallatin thought, of a million dollars, the secretary remonstrated. In his opinion not one third that number were needed in peace, while in case of war any required number could be built within thirty days. "Exclusively of the first expense of building and the interest of the capital thus laid out, I apprehend that, notwithstanding the care which may be taken, they will infallibly decay in a given number of years, and will be a perpetual bill of costs for repairs and maintenance."[2] The President overruled these objections, affirming that the necessary gunboats could not be built even in six months; that after the beginning of a war they could not be built in the seaports, "because they would be destroyed by the enemy on the stocks;" and the first act of the enemy "would be to sweep all our seaports of their vessels at least;" finally, the expense of building and preserving them would be trifling.[3] Gallatin did not persist In the argument. Jefferson was determined to have gunboats, and gunboats were built.

The "Chesapeake" disaster riveted the gunboat policy on the government. Nearly every one, except the Federalists, agreed in Randolph's unwillingness to vote money for the support of a "degraded and disgraced navy."[4] Robert Smith made no apparent attempt to counteract this prejudice; he sacrificed the frigates for gunboats. October 22, 1807, at a full Cabinet meeting, according to Jefferson's memoranda, the following order was taken in regard to the frigates, in view of war with England:[5]

"The 'Constitution' is to remain at Boston, having her men discharged; the 'Wasp' is to come to New York; the 'Chesapeake' to remain at Norfolk; and the sending the 'United States' frigate to New York is reserved for further consideration, inquiring in the mean time how early she could be ready to go. It is considered that in case of war these frigates would serve as receptacles for enlisting seamen, to fill the gunboats occasionally."

A government which could imagine no other use for its frigates than as receiving ships for gunboats in time of war naturally cared to build none. When Congress took up the subject of naval defence, gunboats alone were suggested by the department. November 8 Robert Smith wrote to Dr. Mitchill, chairman of the Senate Committee on defences, a letter asking for eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars to build one hundred and eighty-eight more gunboats in order to raise the whole number to two hundred and fifty-seven.[6] A bill was at once introduced, passed the Senate without a division, and went to the House, where the Federalists sharply assailed it. Randolph ridiculed the idea of expelling by such means even so small a squadron as that which at Lynnhaven Bay had all summer defied the power of the United States. Josiah Quincy declared that except for rivers and shallow waters these gunboats were a danger rather than a defence; and that at all times and places they were uncomfortable, unpopular in the service, and dangerous to handle and to fight. Imprisonment for weeks, months, or years in a ship of the line was no small hardship, but service in a coop not wide enough to lie straight in, with the certainty of oversetting or running ashore or being sunk, in case of bad weather or hostile attack, was a duty intolerable to good seamen and fatal to the navy.

All this and much, more was true. Fulton's steamer, the "Clermont," with a single gun would have been more effective for harbor defence than all the gunboats in the service, and if supplemented by Fulton's torpedoes would have protected New York from any line-of-battle ship; but President Jefferson, lover of science and of paradox as he was, suggested no such experiment. By the enormous majority of 111 to 19, the House, December 11, passed the bill for additional gunboats. A million dollars were voted for fortifications. In all, an appropriation of one million eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars for defences was the work accomplished by Congress between October 26 and December 18, 1807. In face of a probable war with England, such action was equivalent to inaction; and in this sense the public accepted it.

While Congress wrangled about systems of defence almost equally inefficient,—gunboats and frigates, militia and volunteers, muskets, movable batteries, and fixed fortifications,—the country listened with drawn breath for news from England. Time dragged on, but still the "Revenge" did not return. About the end of November, despatches[7] dated October 10 arrived from Monroe, announcing that Canning refused to couple the "Chesapeake" affair with the impressment of merchant seamen; that he was about to send a special envoy to Washington with the exclusive object of settling the "Chesapeake" affair; that Monroe had taken his final audience of King George, and that William Pinkney was henceforward sole minister of the United States in London. Of the treaty not a hope seemed to exist. Monroe's return was ominous of failure.

Erskine, uneasy at hearing these reports, hastened to the White House, and without delay reported Jefferson's conversation to his Government:[8]

"I found from my interview with the President that he was much disappointed at the result of the discussions which had taken place, and, as he expressed himself, greatly alarmed by some of the passages in your letters that a satisfactory redress of the injuries complained of was not likely to be afforded to the United States. He informed me that the reasons which had induced him to instruct the American ministers to endeavor to obtain some arrangement upon the point of impressment of British seamen out of American ships, at the same time that a reparation for the attack on the 'Chesapeake' by his Majesty's ship 'Leopard' was demanded, were that he conceived that if a satisfactory security against the injuries arising to the United States from such impressments could have been obtained, a redress for the attack upon their national ship would have been much easier settled; but that if the point of honor was to be taken into consideration by itself, he foresaw greater difficulties in the way of an amicable adjustment of it.... The President further observed, however, that although he feared the separating the two subjects would increase the difficulty of the negotiation, and that he considered the determination of his Majesty's government to postpone the consideration of the point of impressment—which he said was the most serious ground of difference—as an unfavorable symptom of their ultimate intentions upon that subject, yet that he certainly would not refuse upon the ground of form only that the affair of the 'Chesapeake' should be first concluded; but expressed a hope that the minister who should be sent to this country to settle that subject of complaint should also be invested by his Majesty with powers to negotiate upon the point of impressment."

The sanguine temperament which challenged a duel accorded ill with the afterthought which shrank from it. Voluntarily, coolly, with mature reflection, Jefferson had invited Canning's blow; and when Canning struck, Jefferson recoiled. Monroe might well claim that such conditions as were imposed on him should never have been made, or should never have been withdrawn; that at moments of violent irritation no nation could afford to tease another with demands not meant to be enforced.

To increase the President's embarrassment, the Secretary of War Dearborn made a natural mistake. The original instructions to Monroe, decided in Cabinet meeting July 2,[9] did not connect the "Chesapeake" outrage with impressments of merchant seamen. Neither July 4 nor July 5, when full Cabinet meetings were held, did the subject come up.[10] The final instructions, dated July 6, changed the original demand by extending the required redress over all cases of impressment; but meanwhile General Dearborn had left Washington for New York, and was not told of the change.[11] So it happened that when in October the Federalist newspapers began to attack Jefferson, on the authority of the English press, for coupling the subject of general impressment with the attack on the "Chesapeake," Dearborn, who chanced to be in Massachusetts, denied the charge; and on his authority the Republican newspapers asserted that the alleged instructions had not been given. This denial created no little confusion among Republicans, who could not understand why the instructions had been changed, or on what ground the Administration meant to defend them.

In truth, the change had been an afterthought, founded on the idea that as abandonment of impressments was a sine qua non in the commercial negotiation, and a point on which the Government meant inflexibly to insist, it should properly be made a sine qua non in this or any other agreement.[12] This decision had been made in July, with knowledge that England would rather fight than yield a point so vital to her supposed interests. In December, on hearing that Canning refused to yield, the President told Erskine that the sine qua non, so formally adopted, would be abandoned.

That conduct in appearance so vacillating should perplex Jefferson's friends and irritate his enemies was natural; but in reality nothing vacillating was in the President's mind. These negotiations were but outpost skirmishes, and covered his steady retreat to the fortress which he believed to be impregnable. He meant to coerce Canning, but his method of coercion needed neither armies nor negotiators. While telling Erskine that the sine qua non should not prevent a settlement of the "Chesapeake" affair, he set in motion the first of the series of measures which were intended to teach England to respect American rights.

December 14, against strong remonstrances from the merchants, the Non-importation Act of April 18, 1806, went into effect. The exact amount of British trade affected by that measure was not known. All articles of leather, silk, hemp, glass, silver, paper, woollen hosiery, ready-made clothing, millinery, malt liquors, pictures, prints, playing-cards, and so forth, if of English manufacture, were henceforward prohibited; and any person who had them in his possession incurred forfeiture and fine. The measure was in its nature coercive. The debates in Congress showed that no other object than that of coercion was in the mind of the American government; the history of the Republican party and the consistent language of Jefferson, Madison, and the Virginian school proclaimed that the policy of prohibition was their substitute for war. England was to be punished, by an annual fine of several million dollars, for interference with American trade to the continent of Europe.

Two days after this law went into effect Madison received from the British government a document which threw the Non-importation Act into the background, and made necessary some measure more energetic. The King's proclamation of October 17, requiring all British naval officers to exercise the right of impressment to its full extent over neutral merchant-vessels, was printed in the "National Intelligencer" of December 17; and if Sir William Scott's decision in the case of the "Essex" required the Non-importation Act as its counterpoise, the Impressment Proclamation could be fairly balanced only by a total cessation of relations.

In rapid succession the ships which had sailed a month before from Europe arrived in American harbors, after unusually quick voyages. Monroe, in the "Augustus," reached Norfolk December 13; the "Edward" arrived at Boston December 12; the "Brutus" got in at New York December 14, preceded December 12 by the "Revenge." All these ships brought news to the same effect. Armstrong's despatches by the "Revenge" announced Napoleon's enforcement of the Berlin Decree. London newspapers of November 12 agreed in predicting some immediate and sweeping attack by the British government upon American commerce; and from Pinkney and Monroe came the official papers which put an end to all hope of a commercial treaty with England. Private letters bore out the worst public rumors. Among other persons who were best informed as to the intentions of the British government was Senator Pickering of Massachusetts, whose nephew Samuel Williams had been removed by Jefferson from the London consulate, and remained in that city as an American merchant, in connection with his brother Timothy Williams of Boston. December 12 Timothy Williams in Boston wrote to his uncle Senator Pickering at Washington,[13]

"My brother writes me on the 9th of November 'that he was informed the Government would in a few days declare Cuba, Martinique, and Guadeloupe in a state of blockade, and restrict still more the trade of neutrals with the Continent.' The British no doubt had or would issue an Order above referred to, to counteract our friend Bonaparte's decree of Nov. 21, 1806. I cannot however think the intercourse with the Continent will be entirely cut off. The influence of the West Indian planters will procure the blockading of the enemy's islands, no doubt. What has not this country lost by the miserable policy of the Administration! Your prudence will know to whom you can or cannot communicate any of the above paragraphs."

"With much solicitude respecting the present state of things," Timothy Williams concluded this letter of warning; and his anxiety was shared by every one who read the newspapers which proclaimed the danger of war. At Washington the alarming news arrived December 17, at the heels of the Impressment Proclamation. The President instantly called his Cabinet together. Under less serious circumstances in 1794, Congress had imposed an embargo for thirty days, forbidding clearances to all foreign-bound vessels while the question of war or peace was deciding. By common consent an embargo was the proper measure to be taken in the face of an expected attack on commerce. On reading the news from France and England, every one assumed that an embargo would be imposed until the exact nature of the French and British aggressions should be learned; but safe precedent required that the law should restrict its own operation within some reasonable limit of time. An embargo for thirty or sixty days, or even for three months, might be required before reaching some decision as to peace or war.

On a loose sheet of letter-paper, which happened to bear the address of General Mason, the President wrote a hasty draft of an embargo message to Congress.[14] After referring to Armstrong's despatch announcing the Emperor's decision to enforce the Berlin Decree, Jefferson's draft noticed the threatened orders of England:—

"The British regulations had before reduced us to a direct voyage to a single port of their enemies, and it is now believed they will interdict all commerce whatever with them. A proclamation, too, of that Government (not officially, indeed, communicated to us, yet so given out to the public as to become a rule of action with them) seems to have shut the door on all negotiation with us, except as to the single aggression on the 'Chesapeake.' The sum of these mutual enterprises on our national rights is that France and her allies, reserving for future consideration the prohibiting our carrying anything to the British territories, have virtually done it by restraining our bringing a return cargo from them; and Great Britain, after prohibiting a great proportion of our commerce with France and her allies, is now believed to have prohibited the whole. The whole world is thus laid under interdict by these two nations, and our vessels, their cargoes, and crews are to be taken by the one or the other for whatever place they may be destined out of our own limits. If, therefore, on leaving our harbors we are certainly to lose them, is it not better, as to vessels, cargoes, and seamen, to keep them at home? This is submitted to the wisdom of Congress, who alone are competent to provide a remedy."

Unfortunately, no official document could be produced in proof of the expected British interdict, and mere newspaper paragraphs could not be used for the purpose. To avoid this difficulty Madison wrote, in pencil, another draft which omitted all direct mention of the expected British order. He proposed to send Congress the official letter in which the Grand Judge Regnier announced that the Berlin Decree would be enforced, and with this letter a copy of the British Impressment Proclamation as printed in the "National Intelligencer." On these two documents he founded his draft of a Message:—

"The communications now made showing the great and increasing danger with which our merchandise, our vessels, and our seamen are threatened on the high seas and elsewhere by 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 immediate inhibition of the departure of our vessels from the ports of the United States."[15]

The Cabinet, every member being present, unanimously concurred in the recommendation to Congress;[16] but at least one member would have preferred that the embargo should be limited in time. The Cabinet meeting was held in the afternoon or evening of December 17, and early the next morning Gallatin wrote to the President suggesting a slight change in the proposed measure, and adding a serious warning which Jefferson would have done well to regard:—

"I also think," said Gallatin,[17] "that an embargo for a limited time will at this moment be preferable in itself and less objectionable in Congress. In every point of view—privations, sufferings, revenue, effect on the enemy, politics at home, etc.—I prefer war to a permanent embargo. Governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals, as if he could do it better than themselves. The measure being of a doubtful policy, and hastily adopted on the first view of our foreign intelligence, I think that we had better recommend it with modifications, and at first for such a limited time as will afford us all time for reconsideration, and if we think proper, for an alteration in our course without appearing to retract. As to the hope that it may have an effect on the negotiation with Mr. Rose, or induce England to treat us better, I think it entirely groundless."

To this remarkable letter the President immediately replied by summoning the Cabinet together at ten o'clock in the morning.[18] No record of the consultation was preserved; but when the Senate met at noon the Message was read by the Vice-president as it had been shaped by Madison. The suggestion of Gallatin as to a limit of time had not been adopted.

The Senate instantly referred the Message to a committee of five, with General Smith and J. Q. Adams at its head:—

"We immediately went into the committee-room," recorded Senator Adams in his Diary,[19] "and after some discussion, in which I suggested very strong doubts as to the propriety of the measure upon the papers sent with the President's Message, I finally acquiesced in it as a compliance with the special call for it in the Message. I inquired whether there were other reasons for it besides the diplomatic papers sent with the Message, as they appeared to me utterly inadequate to warrant such a measure. Smith, the chairman, said that the President wanted it to aid him in the negotiation with England upon which Mr. Rose is coming out, and that perhaps it might enable us to get rid of the Non-importation Act. I yielded. But I believe there are yet other reasons, which Smith did not tell. There was no other opposition in committee."

Senator Adams was right in believing that other reasons existed; but although the "National Intelligencer" of the same morning had published the warnings of British newspapers,—doubtless in order to affect the action of Congress,—no one of the Republican senators seemed to rely on the expected British order as the cause of the embargo. In foreign affairs Jefferson maintained the reserve of a European monarch. He alone knew what had been done or was doing, and on him rested the whole responsibility of action. The deference paid by the Senate to the Executive in matters of foreign policy seemed patriotic, but it proved fatal to one senator at least, whose colleague had grievances to revenge. When the committee, after a short deliberation, reported an Embargo Bill, and some of the senators appealed for delay, Adams, who was chafing under the delays which had already lowered the self-respect of Government and people, broke into a strenuous appeal for energy. "The President has recommended the measure on his high responsibility. I would not consider, I would not deliberate; I would act!" The words were spoken in secret session, but Senator Pickering noted them for future use.[20] Among the antipathies and humors of New-England politics none was more characteristic than this personal antagonism, beginning a new conspiracy which was to shake the Union to its foundations.

The Senate agreed with the committee that if an embargo was to be laid it should be laid promptly; and the bill, probably drawn by the President, passed through its three stages on the same day, by a vote of twenty-two to six. At the second reading it was strongly opposed by Hillhouse, Pickering, and Sumter of South Carolina; while William H. Crawford, the new senator from Georgia, asked only time for consideration.[21] Within four or five hours after hearing the Message read, the Senate sent its Embargo Act to the House.

Meanwhile the House also had received the President's Message, and had, like the Senate, gone at once into secret session. No sooner was the Message read than John Randolph and Jacob Crowninshield sprang at the same moment to their feet. The Speaker recognized Randolph, who instantly offered a Resolution, "that an embargo be laid on all shipping, the property of citizens of the United States, now in port, or which shall hereafter arrive." After some time passed in discussion, on receiving the Senate bill the House laid Randolph's Resolution aside, and in secret session began a long and warm debate, which continued all day, and was not concluded on Saturday, December 19, when the House adjourned over Sunday.

The loss of this debate was unfortunate; for no private citizen ever knew the reasons which Congress considered sufficient to warrant a strain of the Constitution so violent as a permanent embargo implied. The debate was certainly dramatic: it was not only the first great political crisis witnessed in the new scenery of the Representatives' Chamber, but it also brought John Randolph forward in an attitude which astonished even those who had witnessed the Virginian's growing eccentricity. On Friday Randolph "scrambled" with Crowninshield for the floor, eager to force on the House a policy of embargo which he had again and again recommended as the only proper measure of national defence. On Saturday he rose again, but only to denounce his own measure as one that crouched to the insolent mandates of Napoleon, and led to immediate war with England.[22] The cry of French influence, raised by him and by the Federalist members, began on that day, and echoed in louder and louder tones for years.

On Monday, December 21, the debate closed, and the House consumed the day in voting. Amendment after amendment was rejected. Most significant of all these votes was the list of yeas and nays on the question of limiting the embargo to the term of two months. Forty-six members voted in the affirmative; eighty-two in the negative. The New England and Pennsylvania Democrats obeyed the wishes of Jefferson, and riveted a permanent embargo on the people, without public discussion of the principle or explanation of the effect which was expected from a measure more trying than war itself to patriotism. The bill then passed by a vote of eighty-two to forty-four.

So small a part was played in this debate by the expected Order in Council that members afterward disputed whether the subject was mentioned at all. Probably the Administration preferred silence in public, either for fear of prejudicing the expected negotiation with Rose, or of weakening the effect of arguments which without the order were sufficiently strong; but in private no such reticence was shown. The British minister on Monday, before the bill had become law, notified Canning not only that an embargo was about to be laid, but of the cause which produced the measure:[23]

"It has been confidentially communicated to me that an embargo on all the shipping in the United States has been proposed in Congress, and although it is strongly resisted, it is expected that it will be carried, on the ground of expecting that a proclamation by his Majesty will be issued declaring France and her dependencies in a state of blockade. I hasten to send you this letter for fear of the effect of an embargo."

The person from whom Erskine received this confidential communication was probably the Secretary of State; for two days afterward, when the British minister wrote to say that the embargo had been laid, he added:[24]

"I propose to send off his Majesty's packet-boat with this intelligence immediately, and avail myself of this opportunity by a private ship to inform you that the embargo is not intended, as this Government declares, as a measure of hostility against Great Britain, but only as a precaution against the risk of the capture of their ships in consequence of the decree of Bonaparte of Nov. 21, 1806, which they have just learned is to be rigorously enforced; and also from an apprehension of a retaliatory order by Great Britain."

Thus the embargo was imposed; and of all President Jefferson's feats of political management, this was probably the most dexterous. On his mere recommendation, without warning, discussion, or publicity, and in silence as to his true reasons and motives, he succeeded in fixing upon the country, beyond recall, the experiment of peaceable coercion. His triumph was almost a marvel; but no one could fail to see its risks. A free people required to know in advance the motives which actuated government, and the intended consequences of important laws. Large masses of intelligent men were slow to forgive what they might call deception. If Jefferson's permanent embargo should fail to coerce Europe, what would the people of America think of the process by which it had been fastened upon them? What would be said and believed of the President who had challenged so vast a responsibility?


  1. Adams's Gallatin, p. 363.
  2. Gallatin's Writings, i. 330.
  3. Jefferson to Gallatin, Feb. 9, 1807; Works, v. 42.
  4. Annals of Congress, 1807-1808, p. 823.
  5. Jefferson's Writings (Ford), i. 330.
  6. Robert Smith to S. L. Mitchill, Nov. 8, 1807; Annals of Congress, 1807-1808, p. 32.
  7. Monroe to Madison, Oct. 10, 1807; State Papers, iii. 191.
  8. Erskine to Canning, Dec. 2, 1807; MSS. British Archives.
  9. See p. 31.
  10. Jefferson's Writings (Ford), i. 325.
  11. Dearborn to Jefferson, Oct. 18, 1807; Jefferson MSS.
  12. R. Smith to Jefferson, July 17, 1807; Jefferson MSS.
  13. T. Williams to T. Pickering, Dec, 12, 1807; Pickering MSS.
  14. Jefferson to Gen. J. Mason; Works, v. 217. Cf. Jefferson to Madison, July 14, 1824; Works, vii. 373.
  15. Draft of Embargo Message, Jefferson MSS. Cf. Jefferson to Madison, July 14, 1824; Works, vii. 373.
  16. Jefferson to John G. Jackson, Oct. 13, 1808; Jefferson MSS.
  17. Gallatin to Jefferson, Dec. 18, 1807; Gallatin's Writings, i. 368.
  18. Jefferson to Gallatin, Dec. 18, 1807; Gallatin's Writings, i. 369.
  19. Diary of J. Q. Adams, Dec. 18, 1807, i, 491.
  20. Pickering's Letter to Governor Sullivan, April 22, 1808. Cf. New-England Federalism, p. 174, n.
  21. Diary of J. Q. Adams, i. 491, 492.
  22. Adams's Randolph, p. 227.
  23. Erskine to Canning, Dec. 21, 1807; MSS. British Archives.
  24. Erskine to Canning, Dec. 23, 1807; MSS. British Archives.