Today we think of Thomas Jefferson as the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, faced down the Barbary pirates, purchased the Louisiana territory, and sent Lewis and Clark to explore it. But if you had told the average American at the close of his presidency that Jefferson would one day be carved in stone on Mount Rushmore, you would’ve been greeted with howls of derision. By the time he left office, Jefferson was about as popular as a rattlesnake. The reason: he had almost singlehandedly crippled the American economy, while depriving Americans of their civil liberties in a far worse way than John Adams ever dreamed of.
The downfall of Jefferson’s second term began in the spring of 1807, when the British warship Leopard fired on the U.S.S. Chesapeake, killing three Americans, wounding 18, and impressing four sailors alleged to have deserted from the British navy. Outraged, Jefferson promptly ordered all British warships out of American waters, but he knew as well as anyone that the nascent United States could ill afford another war with Great Britain. When England announced its intention to search American ships for deserters even more aggressively, Jefferson decided to act. He rammed through Congress a policy he called “peaceable coercion:” a series of five Embargo Acts, effectively banning American trade with all European powers.
Jefferson saw the embargo as a kind of social experiment. He believed that embargo would put the squeeze on both Britain and France by denying them American produce, raw materials, and the American market for their manufactured goods. He also believed that without imported luxuries, the American economy would, of necessity, become more self-sufficient. What he didn’t envision was the catastrophic cost.
Tobacco planters in Jefferson’s native Virginia were among the first to feel the pinch. With sales to European markets outlawed, tobacco glutted the domestic market and rotted in the warehouses. Tobacco prices collapsed, along with the planters’ credit. It was the same story with cotton in the southern states. New England also felt the pain. With imports turned away, ports closed, merchants closed their shops, and tens of thousands of fishermen, sailors, and dockworkers lost their jobs.
Defiance of the embargo acts quickly became widespread. The wealthy defiantly bought imported fineries on the black market, while ships sailing between American ports mysteriously found themselves “blown off course” to Canada, or even all the way across the Atlantic. Several government agents charged with stopping irate American citizens from smuggling goods into Canada resigned in fear of their lives. Even in the highly Democratic-Republican Congress, calls for a repeal of the Embargo Acts rose to a furor.
In March 1808, with rabid opposition to the embargo swelling all over the country, Jefferson was stricken with an incapacitating stress headache that left him feeble, disabled, and insensible for several weeks. By April, however, he had recovered both his strength and a new resolve. In the words of Alan Pell Crawford, author of Twilight at Monticello, “Jefferson began to enforce the embargo with a zeal that struck even his longtime allies as excessive.” Crawford explains, “What began as a ban on trade with Great Britain and France had escalated into a prohibition against all shipping along the Atlantic coast, including routine commerce between American ports. The movement of vessels on lakes, rivers, and bays without approval was also prohibited … Gunboats could stop at will any boat or ship suspected of unlawful commerce; such vessels would then be held until the president personally authorized their release.”
Jefferson ordered military authorities to treat smuggling on Lake Champlain as an insurrection. He ordered the Navy into service to blockade American ports and seize suspicious outbound cargoes, and urged that anyone who defied the embargo—or even disagreed with it—be prosecuted for treason, punishable by imprisonment or death. As the economic downturn turned into a depression and protests raged up and down the Atlantic coast, Jefferson expressed disappointment in the uncooperativeness of American citizens. He wrote that he hoped “the most guilty may be marked as examples, and the less so suffer long imprisonment.”
If the embargo was disastrous to the American economy, it was barely felt in England and France. Historian Forrest McDonald likened the embargo to “a flea trying to break up a dogfight by threatening suicide.” Along with the economic consequences, the biggest casualty was Jefferson’s popularity. Despite the election of James Madison as his successor in November 1808, the Democratic-Republicans took a shellacking in the congressional elections. The Federalist party captured 70% of congressional seats in northern states, as well as control of all of the state legislatures in New England.
In January 1809, the new Congress passed a bill quietly lifting the embargo. The sponsor was the congressman from Jefferson’s own district in Albemarle County, Virginia. A few weeks later, Mr. Jefferson’s presidency—along with his “social experiment” and the greatest disaster of his public career—was over. But impressment of American sailors by British warships went on—and erupted into war three years later.