Jefferson, England, and the Embargo : Trading Wealth and Republican Value in the Shaping of American Diplomacy, 1804-1809

Spivak, Burton, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Graebner, Norman A., Department of History, University of Virginia
Peterson, Merrill, Department of History, University of Virginia

The major focus of this dissertation is Jefferson's response to the Anglo-American crisis. This study argues that Jefferson's idea of England led him to consider seriously the need for war with England after the Chesapeake attack in June 1807; that his image of the American people led him to expect popular support for the embargo; and that his understanding of the importance of law to a republican society, of the duties and oblig3tions of American citizenship, and of the nature of organized Federalism, its social roots and political goals, led him to demand total obedience or total enforcement for reasons largely unconnected to the foreign policy needs that brought the embargo into existence. The crisis

in British affairs the plagued the Republicans was partially self-created. It grew from an unsettling contradiction between economic aspiration and Republican ideology and attitude toward labor. The Republican vision of American economic development was grounded in the soil and rivers of the American domain, and in the economic skills of the American producing classes. The value and place that commerce had in this scheme rested on the need to market the bounty of the producer. The wealth the European wars and the carrying trade opened to America, however, clouded this vision. The protection of the carrying trade became the chief goal of Jefferson's economic diplomacy, and saddled that diplomacy with an unattainable demand.

Diplomacy struggled against this demand from 1804 to 1807. The girth of American expectation and the misuse of economic coercion contributed to the failure of Monroe's and Pinkney's efforts. But during this phase of Jefferson’s diplomacy, economic coercion conformed to its historic antecedents: the threat or actual loss of the American market to foreign ships and manufactures.

After the attack on the Chesapeake, the issue for Jefferson ceased to be trade and became instead besieged American nationality and bloated British ambition. This dialectic involved Jefferson in the need for war against England. Jefferson's acceptance of the historical need for war, and war's potential for quick success and national vindication separated him from the opinions of much of his cabinet, the majority of Congress, and most of the American people.

In late autumn 1807, indications that both France and England planned more assaults on American commerce obscured in the larger gloom of a sick Europe Jefferson's image of a malevolent Great Britain. They also resolved the tension in Jefferson's economic thinking in favor of internal development and native production. The embargo recommendation, coming suddenly in mid-December 1807, both announced this resolution and confessed past error. In its largest sense, it placed the dynamic of national economic growth in the energies and aspirations of the American producers.

Looking to future liberation, the embargo could not escape present predicaments. Always potentially coercive, the measure at first aimed more at precaution, defense, and the purchase of time for military preparation and diplomatic initiative. At Jefferson's suggestion, the Administration pursued in much of 1808 a diplomatic strategy bottomed on the realization that the people would not support the embargo for more than a year, and on the resulting need to use that time to resolve all differences with Europe, or to isolate one enemy and provide the nation with a manageable war. The failure of diplomacy, known to the Jeffersonians by November 1808, found the president near retirement and unable to face the harsh logic and timetable he had previously charted.

Throughout the last half of 1808, coercion ascended in the purposes of the embargo and, with diplomacy's summer failure, dominated them. This study also analyzes that process, the types and scope of embargo violations, and the Jeffersonian struggle, especially Gallatin’s efforts, to exact obedience to unpopular law. Mounting evasions and the need for policy led Congress to enact the oppressive final embargo law. Almost simultaneously, political needs and fears of social unrest forced a Congressional abandonment of the measure. Since Federalists opposed both developments and the approaching succession weakened the executive branch, the strange history of the embargo from November 1808 to February 1809 is located in the perceptions and actions of the congressional Republican majority.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Jefferson, Thomas -- 1743-1826, Embargo, 1807-1809

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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