History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/Second/II:19

Chapter 19: Repeal of EmbargoEdit

Early in January the intended policy of Madison became known. As the story has already told, Madison and Gallatin decided to retain the embargo until June, but to call the new Congress together May 22, and then to declare war, unless Erskine could make concessions. President Jefferson was chiefly interested in maintaining the embargo until after March 4, and the despotism he had so long maintained over Congress seemed still to exasperate his enemies. By common consent, attack upon the embargo was regarded as attack upon the President: and the Northern Democrats had so far lost respect for their old leader as to betray almost a passion for telling him unpleasant truths.

Joseph Story, who took the lead in this party rebellion, came to Congress determined to overthrow the embargo, and found Ezekiel Bacon—another Massachusetts member—equally determined with himself. In after years Justice Story told the tale as he remembered it:[1]

"The whole influence of the Administration was directly brought to bear upon Mr. Ezekiel Bacon and myself to seduce us from what we considered a great duty to our country, and especially to New England. We were scolded, privately consulted, and argued with by the Administration and its friends on that occasion. I knew at the time that Mr. Jefferson had no ulterior measure in view, and was determined on protracting the embargo for an indefinite period, even for years. I was well satisfied that such a course would not and could not be borne by New England, and would bring on a direct rebellion. It would be ruin to the whole country. Yet Mr. Jefferson, with his usual visionary obstinacy, was determined to maintain it; and the New England Republicans were to be made the instruments. Mr. Bacon and myself resisted; and measures were concerted by us, with the aid of Pennsylvania, to compel him to abandon his mad scheme. For this he never forgave me."

Joseph Story, with very high and amiable qualities, was quick in temper; and in regard to Jefferson he let his temper master his memory.

"One thing I did learn while I was a member of Congress," he continued, "and that was that New England was expected, so far as the Republicans were concerned, to do everything and to have nothing. They were to obey, but not to be trusted. This, in my humble judgment, was the steady policy of Mr. Jefferson at all times. We were to be kept divided, and thus used to neutralize each other."

In this spirit toward his own President Story came to Washington, and joined hands with Timothy Pickering, John Randolph, and George Canning in the attempt "to lower and degrade" Jefferson in the eyes of his own people. Jefferson asked only to be spared the indignity of signing with his own hand the unconditional repeal of the embargo; while the single point on which Story, Bacon, Pickering, and Canning were agreed was that the repeal should be the act of the man who made the law. On one side Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, and their friends entreated Congress to stand firm; to maintain the ground already solemnly taken; to leave the embargo until June, and then to declare war if they pleased. On the other hand, Pickering, Bacon, Story, the Clintons, and the Pennsylvanians demanded immediate repeal,—partly to pacify New England, but quite as much for the reason, which Pickering urged, that immediate repeal would prevent war. That it would in fact prevent war was obvious. Repeal was submission.

Story took no part in the public struggle, for he left Washington about January 20, and the great debate began ten days afterward; but although he held his peace in public, and his friends made no open display of their anger, the temper in which they acted was notorious, and the breach between them and Jefferson was never healed. They could not forgive him: that Jefferson should ever forget the wound they inflicted, required magnanimity beyond that of any philosopher known in politics.

As soon as the naval and military bills and the extra session for May 22 were at last fairly determined and every detail decided, Wilson Cary Nicholas took the lead of the House, and January 30 called up a Resolution intended to settle the policy of embargo and war. The words of this Resolve were too serious not to have received very careful attention:

"Resolved, As the opinion of this House, that the United States ought not to delay beyond the ———— day of ———— to resume, maintain, and defend the navigation of the high seas; and that provision ought to be made by law for repealing on the ———— day of ———— the several embargo laws, and for authorizing at the same time letters of marque and reprisal against Great Britain and France, provided on that day their Orders or Edicts violating the lawful commerce and neutral rights of the United States shall be in force; or against either of those nations having in force such Orders or Edicts."

Nicholas agreed to divide the Resolution so that a test vote might first be taken on the repeal of the embargo; and he then moved to fill the blank with the words, "the first day of June." The House was thus asked to pledge itself that on June 1 the embargo should cease. On this question the debate began.

David R. Williams was a typical Carolinian. With something of the overbearing temper which marked his class, he had also the independence and the honesty which went far to redeem their failings. He had stood for years, with his friend Macon, proof against the influence of patronage and power; he supported the embargo, and was not ashamed to avow his dread of war; but since his favorite measure was to be thrown aside, he stood by his character, and made an appeal to the House, giving at once to the debate an air of dignity which it never wholly lost:—

"Will you drive us to a repeal of the embargo, and make no resistance? Are you ready to lie down quietly under the impositions laid upon you? You have driven us from the embargo. The excitements in the East render it necessary that we should enforce the embargo with the bayonet or repeal it. I will repeal it,—and I could weep over it more than over a lost child. If you do not resist, you are no longer a nation; you dare not call yourself so; you are the merest vassals conceivable. . . . I appeal to the minority, who hold the destinies of the nation in their grasp,—for they can enforce embargo without the bayonet,—I beg them, if they will not declare war, that they will do the best they can for their country."

No one then wondered to see South Carolina almost on her knees before Massachusetts, beseeching her, on her own terms, for her own honor, to do the best she could for the common country; but Massachusetts had no voice to respond. Dryly, in the caustic tone of Connecticut austerity, Samuel Dana replied that the days of ancient chivalry had not yet returned. When Massachusetts at last found a spokesman, she gave her answer through the mouth of Ezekiel Bacon,—a man second to none in respectability, but not one whom, in a moment of supreme crisis, the State would naturally have chosen among all her citizens to pronounce her will. Bacon had carefully collected advice from the men in his State who were most competent to give counsel;[2] but in Massachusetts affairs at Washington were little understood. Bent only on saving the Union by forcing a repeal of the embargo, and hampered by alliance with Federalists and Pennsylvanians, Bacon could not afford to show a sense of national self-respect.

He began by admitting that the discontents in New England made immediate repeal necessary:—

"It surely could not be sound policy, by adhering to this system beyond the measure of absolute necessity, to risk in the hands of any faction which might be disposed to wield it an instrument by which they may endanger the union of our country, and raise themselves to power on the ruins of liberty and the Constitution."

Such a beginning, offering a reward for threats of disunion, and conceding to traitors what would have been refused to good citizens, was an evil augury; and the rest of Bacon's speech carried out the promise. As he refused to prolong the embargo, so he refused to vote for war. "In every point of view, the policy of declaring offensive war against any nation four months in advance is to me wholly objectionable." The conclusion was as feeble as was required by the premises; but only some demon of bad taste could have inspired an orator at such a moment to use the language of Falstaff;—

"We choose not to take measures any more than to give reasons 'upon compulsion', and we will not so take them. We will, however, I trust, defend ourselves against the depredations of both [belligerents]; and if they both or either choose to persevere in the execution of their lawless aggressions, we shall, it is hoped, become more united in our determination and our efforts to vindicate our rights, if they shall continue to be assailed. At any rate, I am for leaving it to the wisdom of the ensuing Congress, which is to meet at an early day, to determine upon that position which the nation shall take in relation to such a state of things as may grow out of the course which I propose."

Between the Federalists and the Republicans of Massachusetts Congress was left under no illusions. Bacon expressed in these vacillating phrases the true sense of the country. On the evening of February 2, after four days of debate, the committee, by seventy-three votes against forty, rejected Wilson Cary Nicholas's motion to fix June 1 as the date for removing the embargo; and the next day, by an affirmative vote of seventy, with no negatives, March 4 was fixed as the term.

Immediately after this decisive division John Randolph took the floor. Discord had become his single object in public life. The Federalists at least had a purpose in their seditiousness, and were honest in preferring the British government to their own; the Republicans of all shades, however weak in will or poor in motive, were earnest in their love of country; but Randolph was neither honest nor earnest, neither American nor English nor truly Virginian. Disappointed ambition had turned him into a mere egoist; his habits had already become intemperate, and his health was broken; but he could still charge upon Jefferson all the disasters of the country, and could delight in the overwhelming ruin which had fallen upon his former chief. Randolph's speech of February 3 was stale and tedious. Except on the single point of raising the embargo he was spiritless: and his only positive idea, borrowed from the Federalists, consisted in a motion that, instead of issuing letters of marque, Government should authorize merchant-vessels to arm and defend themselves from seizure. If the scheme had a meaning, it meant submission to the British Orders, and was suggested by the Federalists for no other object; but in Randolph's mind such a plan carried no definite consequence.

On Randolph's motion the debate continued until February 7. The Republicans, disconcerted and disheartened by the conduct of their friends from New England and New York, made little show of energy, and left to David R. Williams the task of expressing the whole ignominy of their defeat. Williams struggled manfully. Randolph's fears for the Constitution were answered by the South Carolinian in a few words, which condensed into a single paragraph the results of his party theories:—

"If the Constitution is made of such brittle stuff as not to stand a single war; if it is only to be preserved by submission to foreign taxation,—I shall very soon lose all solicitude for its preservation."

With more than Federalist bitterness he taunted the hesitation of the Democrats,—"contemptible cowardice," he called it. "It is time we should assume, if it is not in our natures, nerve enough to decide whether we will go to war or submit." The House replied by striking out the recommendation of reprisals, by a vote of fifty-seven to thirty-nine.

These two votes rendered the Administration for the moment powerless to make head against the sweeping Federalist victory. Josiah Quincy, who watched every symptom of democratic disaster, wrote as early as February 2, before the first defeat of the Administration:[3] "There is dreadful distraction in the enemy's camp on the subject of removing the embargo. Jefferson and his friends are obstinate. Bacon and the Northern Democrats are equally determined that it shall be raised in March." The next day Quincy added: "Jefferson is a host; and if the wand of that magician is not broken, he will yet defeat the attempt."

The contest had become personal; to break the "wand of the magician" was as much the object of Democrats as of Federalists, and neither Madison nor Gallatin could restore discipline. February 4 the Secretary of the Treasury wrote:[4] "As far as my information goes, everything grows more quiet in Massachusetts and Maine. All would be well if our friends remained firm here."

The attempt to hold the friends of the Administration firm brought only greater disaster. The vote in committee refusing to recommend reprisals took place February 7; and the next day Quincy wrote again: "Great caucusing is the order of the day and the night here. The Administration is determined to rally its friends, and postpone the removal of the embargo till May. But I think they cannot succeed. Bacon, I am told, stands firm and obstinate against all their solicitations and even almost denunciations. However, they had another caucus last night. The event is unknown. Jefferson has prevailed."

February 9 the result of the caucus was shown by a vote of the House discharging the Committee of the Whole, and referring the subject to the Committee of Foreign Relations, whose chairman was G. W. Campbell,—which amounted to a public admission that Madison's plan had failed, and that some new expedient for uniting the party must be invented. Ezekiel Bacon refused to obey the caucus, and voted with the Federalists against the reference.

President Jefferson, though his name was still a terror to his enemies, accepted whatever decision his Cabinet advised. Till the day of his death he never forgot the violence of these last weeks of his administration, or the outcry of the New England towns. "How powerfully did we feel the energy of this organization in the case of the embargo," he wrote long afterward.[5] "I felt the foundations of the government shaken under my feet by the New England townships." He showed the same lack of interest in February which had marked his conduct in November; not even the certainty of his own overthrow called out the familiar phrases of vexation. February 7 he wrote to his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph,[6]

"I thought Congress had taken their ground firmly for continuing their embargo till June, and then war. But a sudden and unaccountable revolution of opinion took place the last week, chiefly among the New England and New York members, and in a kind of panic they voted the 4th of March for removing the embargo, and by such a majority as gave all reason to believe they would not agree either to war or non-intercourse. This, too, was after we had become satisfied that the Essex Junto had found their expectation desperate, of inducing the people there either to separation or forcible opposition. The majority of Congress, however, has now rallied to the removing the embargo on the 4th March, non-intercourse with France and Great Britain, trade everywhere else, and continuing war preparations. The further details are not yet settled, but I believe it is perfectly certain that the embargo will be taken off the 4th of March."

As the President became more subdued, Senator Pickering became more vehement; his hatred for Jefferson resembled the hatred of Cotton Mather for a witch. February 4 he wrote to his nephew in Boston:[7]

"I entertain no doubt that Jefferson stands pledged to Bonaparte to maintain the embargo until a non-intercourse or war shall succeed; and he dreads the explosion justly to be apprehended by him from the disappointment and passion of Bonaparte, should the embargo be removed without a substitute as well or better comporting with his views. Upon this aspect of things it behooves our State legislature to advance with a firm step in defence of the rights of our citizens and of the Constitution. The palatines tremble at their posts. The least relaxation or wavering in the councils of New England would give them fresh courage, and hazard the most disastrous consequences."

Another observer wrote comments, serious in a different sense. Erskine watched with extreme interest every detail of this complicated struggle, and reported to Canning both facts and speculations which could not fail to affect the British government. Aware that Canning had won a brilliant success, Erskine labored to profit by his triumph, and to turn it in the interests of peace. A vast majority of Americans, he said,[8] wanted only some plausible excuse to justify them in resenting Napoleon's conduct; but "they naturally wish to be saved the complete humiliation of being obliged avowedly to recant all their violent declarations of their determination never to submit to the Orders in Council of Great Britain." He speculated "how far it might be possible still further to bend the spirit of that part of the people of the United States until they should be forced to single out France to be resisted as the original aggressors while his Majesty's Orders in Council continued to be enforced." After the repeal of the embargo and the refusal to make war, but one remnant of American protest against British aggressions remained. The Republican caucus, February 7, decided in favor of returning to Jefferson's pacific non-intercourse,—the system which had been, by common consent, thrown aside as insufficient even before the embargo. February 10 Erskine gave an account of the new measure, and of its probable effect on American politics:—

"It is true that a non-intercourse law may be considered by the Eastern States very objectionable; but as it would be rather a nominal prohibition than a rigorous enforcement, a resistance to it would be less likely to be made, and of less importance if it should take place. The ultimate consequences of such differences and jealousies arising between the Southern and Eastern States would inevitably tend to a dissolution of the Union, which has been for some time talked of, and has of late, as I have heard, been seriously contemplated by many of the leading people in the Eastern division."

The Non-intercourse Bill, which Erskine described February 10 as likely to be no more than a nominal prohibition of commerce, was reported February 11 to the House from the Committee of Foreign Relations. The bill excluded all public and private vessels of France and England from American waters; forbade under severe penalties the importation of British or French goods; repealed the embargo laws, "except so far as they relate to Great Britain or France or their colonies or dependencies, or places in the actual possession of either;" and gave the President authority to reopen by proclamation the trade with France or England in case either of these countries should cease to violate neutral rights. That the proposed non-intercourse was in truth submission to the Orders in Council, no one denied.

"I conceive that great advantages may be reaped from it by England," wrote Erskine,[9] "as she has the command of the seas, and can procure through neutrals any of the produce of this country, besides the immense quantity which will be brought direct to Great Britain under various pretences; whereas France will obtain but little, at a great expense and risk."

Such a non-intercourse merely sanctioned smuggling, and was intended for no other purpose. Gallatin in his disgust flung open the doors to illicit commerce. When Erskine went to him to ask what was meant by "France, England, and their dependencies," Gallatin replied that only places in actual possession of England and France were intended; that it was impossible to say what nations had decrees in force infringing neutral rights, but that even Holland would be considered an independent country.[10]

"The intention of this indefinite description," continued Erskine, "is undoubtedly to leave open as many places for their commerce as they can, consistently with keeping up an appearance of resistance to the belligerent restrictions; but it is thoroughly understood that the whole measure is a mere subterfuge to extricate themselves from the embarrassments of the embargo system, and is never intended to be enforced."

When this bill came before the House, another long debate arose. Hardly a trace of national pride remained. No one approved the bill, but no one struggled longer against submission. Josiah Quincy and many of the Federalists held that the surrender as not yet complete enough, and that total submission to Great Britain must precede the return of Massachusetts to harmony with the Union, or to a share in measures of government. His words were worth noting:—

"He wished peace if possible; if war, union in that war. For this reason he wished a negotiation to be opened, unshackled with those impediments to it which now existed. As long as they remained, the people in the portion of country whence he came would not deem an unsuccessful attempt at negotiation to be cause for war. If they were removed, and an earnest attempt at negotiation was made, unimpeded with these restrictions, and should not meet with success, they would join heartily in a war."

Doubtless Quincy believed the truth of what he said; but as though to prove him mistaken in claiming even the modest amount of patriotism which he asserted for his party, Barent Gardenier immediately followed with a declaration that Great Britain was wholly in the right, and that America should not only submit to the Orders in Council, but should take pride in submission:—

"I do not say that the orders were lawful, or that they were not infringements of our rights as a neutral nation,—as it might offend the prejudices of the House. But I may be permitted to say that if they were unlawful, I have proved that they are not hurtful; that the British Orders in Council only supplied to that which our sense of honor would lead us to do, their sanction."[11]

Gardenier's views roused no longer much outward irritation. The war Republicans liked honest avowals better than sham patriotism; but John Randolph, unwilling to be embarrassed with allies so candid, rated Gardenier sharply:—

"I looked at the gentleman from New York at that moment with the sort of sensation which we feel in beholding a sprightly child meddling with edged tools,—every moment expecting, what actually happened, that he will cut his fingers. . . . The gentleman's friends, if any he have,—and I have no right to presume that he has none, but the contrary,—will do well to keep such dangerous implements out of his way for the future."

Randolph himself persisted in the scheme of withdrawing all restrictions on commerce, and allowing merchant-vessels to arm,—a measure which had the advantage of being warlike or pacific, according as he should prefer in the future to represent it. David R. Williams hit upon an idea more sensible, and likely to prove more effective. "If the embargo is to be taken off, and war not to be substituted,—if the nation is to submit,—I wish to do it profitably." He proposed to shut out the shipping of England and France, but to admit their manufactures, under a duty of fifty per cent when imported in American vessels. A number of Southern Republicans approved this plan.

Much the strongest speech against the bill was that of George W. Campbell, who made no attempt to hide his mortification at seeing the House desert him, its leader, and turn its back upon the pledge it had solemnly given in accepting his Report only two months before:—

"At the very time when your own people are rallying round the standard of their government; when they are about to shake off that timidity, that alarm, that restless disposition, which the first pressure occasioned by the suspension of commerce naturally produced; when they are, in almost every quarter of the Union, declaring their determination and solemnly pledging themselves to support your measures, to maintain the embargo, or go to war if necessary,—to do anything but submit: at that very moment, instead of being invited by a similar patriotic enthusiasm to throw yourselves in front, and to lead them on to the honorable contest, you abandon the ground you have already occupied, you check their generous enthusiasm, and leave them the mortification of seeing their country disgraced by a timid, temporizing policy that must, if persevered in, ruin the nation."

Although events had already proved that no appeal to self-respect called out a response from this Congress, Campbell might reasonably suppose that arguments of self-interest would be heard; and he pressed one objection to the bill which, in theory, should have been decisive:—

"The non-intercourse would press most severely on the Southern and Western States, who depend chiefly on the immediate exchange of their productions for foreign goods, and would throw almost the whole commerce of the nation into the hands of the Eastern States, without competition, and also add a premium on their manufactures at the expense of the agricultural interest to the South and West. Foreign goods being excluded, the manufacturing States would furnish the rest of the Union with their manufactured goods at their own prices."

A moment's reflection must have satisfied the Republicans that this argument against the bill was fatal. Non-intercourse must ruin the South, in order to offer an immense bribe to the shipping and manufactures of New England as an inducement for New England to remain in the Union. The manufacturing interests never ventured to ask such extravagant protection as was thrust upon them in 1809 by the fears of the agricultural States; the greed of corporate capital never suggested the monopoly created for Eastern ships and factories by a measure which shut from America all ships and manufactures but theirs. Even if but partially enforced, such legislation was ruinous to agriculture.

Entreaty and argument were thrown away. The House lost discipline, self-respect, and party character. No one felt responsible for any result, no majority approved any suggestion. As the last days of the session drew near, the machinery of legislation broke down, and Congress became helpless. So strange and humiliating a spectacle had not before been seen. The nation seemed sinking into the weakness of dissolution.

The paralysis came in a form that could not be disguised. While the House disputed over one Non-intercourse Bill, the Senate passed another; and February 22 the House laid aside its own measure in order to take up that of the Senate, which contained the disputed clause authorizing letters of marque and reprisal against nations that should continue their unlawful edicts after repeal of the embargo. In pursuance of its vote of February 7, the House in committee promptly struck out the reprisal clause. Next it rejected David R. Williams's motion for discriminating duties. Ezekiel Bacon, perhaps somewhat scandalized at the legislation he had chiefly caused, suggested the Federalist plan of authorizing merchant-vessels to resist seizure; and February 25 a struggle occurred on the question of permitting forcible resistance by merchant-vessels. The minority was deeply agitated as the act of complete submission became imminent. David R. Williams cried that if the House could so abandon national rights, they deserved to be scoffed by all the world; John W. Eppes declared himself compelled to believe Josiah Quincy's assertion that the majority could not be kicked into a war; even the peaceable Macon moved a warlike amendment. Vote after vote was taken; again and again the ayes and noes were called on dilatory motions of adjournment; but every motion looking toward war was steadily voted down, and in the end, February 27, the Non-intercourse Bill in its most unresisting shape received the approval of the House. Not a speaker defended it; at the last moment the charge was freely made that the bill had not a single friend. The members who voted for it declared in doing so that the measure was a weak and wretched expedient, that they detested it, and took it merely as a choice of evils; but eighty-one members voted in its favor, and only forty in the negative. More extraordinary still, this non-intercourse, which bound the South to the feet of New England, was supported by forty-one Southern members, while but twelve New England representatives recorded their names in its favor.

Three months afterward, at a moment when the danger of war seemed to have vanished, John Randolph recalled the memory of this confused struggle, and claimed for President Jefferson and himself the credit for having prevented a declaration of war. He had voted against the non-intercourse, he said, because he had believed that he could get rid of the embargo on still better terms; others had voted against it because they thought it absolute disgrace:[12]

"The fact is that nobody would advocate it; that though it was carried by a majority of two to one, those who finally voted for it condemned it, and all parties seemed ashamed of it; and that . . . all the high-toned men and high-toned presses in this country denounced the majority of this House for passing that law, as having utterly disgraced themselves. . . . If the great leaders could have been gratified, according to their own showing they would have dragged this country into a war with Great Britain. . . . Now to be sure, sir, those persons who undertook to stop their wild career were composed of heterogeneous materials; . . . there were minority men, caucus men, protesters,—in fact, sir, all parties, Catholics, Protestants, Seceders,—and all were united in the effort to prevent the leaders of both Houses from plunging the nation into a war with one Power and knuckling to the other; from riveting the chains of French influence, perhaps of French alliance upon us. Thank God that their designs were proclaimed to the nation, that the President did not give his consent, which would have made us kick the beam. Yes, sir! Federalists, minority men, protesters, and all would have kicked the beam if it had ever emanated from the Cabinet that the President was for war."

If Randolph was right, the "wand of the magician" had not been broken; and other observers besides Randolph held the same opinion. "Jefferson has triumphed," wrote Josiah Quincy, February 27, immediately after the repeal; "his intrigues have prevailed."[13]

In a spirit widely different from that of Randolph and Quincy, Nathaniel Macon, February 28, wrote to his friend Nicholson,—

"Otis, the Secretary of the Senate, has this moment informed the House of Representatives that the Senate have agreed to the amendments made by the House to the Bill to repeal the embargo.
"The Lord, the mighty Lord, must come to our assistance, or I fear we are undone as a nation!"[14]


  1. Story's Life of Story, i. 187.
  2. Cf. J. Q. Adams to Ezekiel Bacon, Nov. 17 and Dec. 21, 1808; New England Federalism, pp, 127, 131.
  3. Quincy's Life of Quincy, p. 185.
  4. Adams's Gallatin, p. 386.
  5. Jefferson to J. C. Cabell, Feb. 2, 1816; Works, vi. 540.
  6. Works, v. 424.
  7. Pickering to T. Williams, Feb. 4, 1809; Pickering MSS.
  8. Erskine to Canning, Feb. 9, 1809; MSS. British Archives.
  9. Erskine to Canning, Feb. 10, 1809; MSS. British Archives.
  10. Erskine to Canning, Feb. 13, 1809; MSS. British Archives.
  11. Annals of Congress, 1808-1809, p. 1460.
  12. Annals of Congress, 1809-1810; part i. 149, 150.
  13. Quincy's Life of Quincy, p. 185.
  14. Macon to Nicholson, Feb. 28, 1809; Nicholson MSS.