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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5

Chapter Four

 p41  A Noble Experiment Fails

To Jefferson the Embargo was a magnificent experiment; to Timothy Pickering it was a magnificent opportunity. Pickering had had a distinguished career. The son of a prominent New England family, he had been educated at Harvard. During the Revolutionary War he had served first as Adjutant General, then as Quartermaster General of the American Army. He had been successively Postmaster General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State under Washington. He had carried on the last office under Adams until, intriguing with the enemies of the administration, he had been asked to resign. In 1803 he had been elected to the Senate.

An irreconcilable Federalist, Pickering was the prime mover in that little band of die‑hards known as the Essex Junta, named after the Massachusetts county in which it originated. The French Revolution was as loathsome to him as it had been to Pitt and the British Tories; and, because Jefferson had been a friend of France, the Virginian was to Pickering as loathsome as the French Revolution. Having held the highest post in the cabinet, enjoyed the confidence of the great Washington, Pickering saw himself and his party hopelessly overwhelmed while power fell into the hands of men whom he distrusted and hated. The disappointment was more than he could stand, and he allowed his prejudices to produce a mania which warped his judgment and led him to commit acts against his government that were treasonable, if not actually treason. At the time of the purchase of Louisiana, which he saw only as a factor in increasing the preponderance of the West and the West, he even went so far as to suggest the destruction of the Union and the setting up of a confederation composed of New England and New York, a proposal  p42 which Alexander Hamilton, with greater vision, promptly rejected.

Had Pickering been obscure, his hallucinations might have been ignored. But as a political leader and a senator he was in a position to sway the minds of many of his fellow New Englanders, particularly those of wealth and prominence, until disloyalty to the government became fashionable in that section of the country. It was unlucky for Jefferson that his Embargo came into operation in a presidential election year when the Federalists were in need of a popular issue. No sooner had the bill passed Congress than Pickering seized upon it and turned it to political ends. Ignoring completely Jefferson's aims to avoid war he advertised the Embargo as designed to support Napoleon's Continental System and a subtle means of destroying New England while benefiting the Southern and Western States.

The cry was taken up by the pulpit and the press. The Chesapeake affair and impressment were forgotten while the Federalists extolled England. Pickering exclaimed in a letter made public, ". . . although England, with her thousand ships of war, could have destroyed our commerce, she has really done it no essential injury." William Cullen Bryant, a rising young poet of thirteen years, took the cue from his elders, damned the Jefferson administration as a "weak ruler's philosophic dreams" and, twanging his lyre, sang on:

Curse of our nation, source of countless woes,

From whose dark womb unreckoned misery flows,

The Embargo rages, like a sweeping wind —

Fear lowers before, and Famine stalks behind.

It is true the Embargo worked immediate hardships on the country. Ships lay idle at their wharves. Sailors were thrown out of employment. In New York the Commandant of the Navy Yard hired 300 of them who were glad to work for rations only. Many of them somehow found their way to the British colonies and enlisted in the British navy. Republican newspapers declared that the bulk of them returned to farming and other industries while Federalist newspapers insisted as strongly that they had taken the only course open to them and submitted to impressment. Within six months few  p43 of them were to be found. In September of that year the New York Evening Post was lamenting, "Is it not notorious that not a seaport in the United States can produce enough seamen to man three merchant ships?"

Wages were cut in half and laborers were deprived of the ordinary necessities of life — sugar, salt, tea, coffee, molasses and rum. In the Middle Atlantic States, for want of a market, wheat fell from $2.00 to 75 cents a bushel. If Jefferson wished to advance the interests of the South, he took a poor means of accomplishing it. His native state of Virginia fared worse than the rest of the country. Her tobacco crop could not be sold and yet her planters had to support in idleness 400,000 slaves. Many of her wealthiest people were ruined. Farther South the wharves were piled high with cotton. While the South found no market for her produce, she had to pay more for manufactured goods which attained scarcity values. No people ever suffered more for party loyalty than did the Republicans of the South in the last year of Jefferson's administration.

New England made the loudest complaints, yet actually she was better off than the South. Her fishing and her shipping interests, of course, suffered, but no loyalty to the administration restrained her. Under the circumstances there was every temptation to smuggle and a thriving illicit trade sprang up on the Canadian border, with Boston as a center. To New England, though she was not aware of it, the Embargo brought a permanent blessing in disguise, for it turned people's thoughts from the sea to the factory, laying the foundation for New England's commercial supremacy. John Randolph of Roanoke saw it when, speaking of New England, he exclaimed, "she has forsaken the trident for the distaff."

Jefferson realized the machinations of his enemies and their results in the rising tide of popular condemnation of his pet measure. Yet he stuck firmly to his purpose and endeavored to strengthen the embargo by supplementary acts. Too many vessels with certificates for the coasting trade reported that they had been "blown out to sea" and wound up in foreign ports. To halt these evasions of the law Jefferson enacted restrictions that seriously impaired the trade and virtually closed the route of traffic on the sea between North and South that in those days was far more important than the routes by land. Distasteful as it was to a Republican who had protested  p44 similar action in the administration of the Federalists, the President called upon the army and the navy to enforce the laws against smuggling.

America suffered, yet the European countries against whom the Embargo had been laid gave no appreciable evidences of distress. Napoleon applauded the act as a measure adding the final touch to his Continental System. Before the Embargo went into effect many American vessels put to sea to escape it. Others that were in foreign ports remained away from home. Many of them, under British certificates, made their way to France. Napoleon promptly took advantage of the opportunity on April 17 to issue the Bayonne Decree under which he ordered the seizure of American vessels and their cargoes in French ports to the value of $10,000,000. Similar seizures took place in the harbors of Holland and those now under his control on the Baltic Sea. When Minister Armstrong protested, the Emperor replied that the vessels were either British or American. If they were British they belonged to his enemy; if they were American they were in France in violation of the Embargo Act and the American Government should thank him for helping to enforce its law. Knowing Napoleon's need for money, Armstrong despaired of the return of such valuable property.

Great Britain, too, accepted the Embargo with apparent indifference. A revolt in the Spanish colonies which followed the crowning of Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain opened to Great Britain a new source of trade that compensated for losses in the United States. When Minister Pinkney suggested to Canning that the Embargo might be removed in exchange for a repeal of the orders in council, Canning refused the offer, adding in his most sarcastic manner that he imagined the Embargo was an inconvenience to the American people.

Pinkney, however, was not deceived by what he divined to be a magnificent bluff. From London he wrote to Madison, Secretary of State, "The Embargo and loss of our trade are deeply felt here, and will be felt with more severity every day. The wheat harvest is likely to be alarmingly short, and the state of the continent will augment the evil. The discontents among the manufacturers are only quieted for a moment by temporary causes. Cotton is rising and will soon be scarce." He urged Jefferson to stick to his policy.

 p45  Yet at home the situation was growing more tense. The enforcing acts instead of putting an end to violations of the law only served to arouse its opponents to greater fury. Massachusetts lawyers now fell back upon the familiar expedient of questioning the constitutionality of the law. The Boston Gazette in its editorial columns openly proposed secession from the Union. "It is better," said the editor, "to suffer the amputation of a limb than to lose the whole body. We must prepare for the amputation."

A handbill distributed in Newburyport illustrated the temper of the opposition. "Let every man," it read, "who holds the name of America dear to him stretch forth his hand and put this accursed thing — the Embargo — from him. Be resolute; act like the sons of liberty, of God, and of our country; nerve your arms with Vengeance against the Despot who would wrest the inestimable gem of your independence from you, and you shall be conquerors!"

Canning, it will be recalled, offered to send to the United States a minister plenipotentiary to settle the matter of the Chesapeake. The minister arrived early in the year in the person of George H. Rose. Once more Rose began with the Secretary of State an argument as to whether withdrawal of the President's proclamation forbidding British men-of‑war to enter American ports should precede announcement of British reparations for the attack on the Chesapeake. By this time Jefferson was ready to yield if he could find the means gracefully to do so. Rose had been instructed by Canning not to divulge the details of the reparations Britain would grant, but at last he yielded to persuasion. Then, to their astonishment, the President and Secretary of State discovered that Canning set forth as a condition that Commodore Barron should be disciplined for having refused to admit a British officer to search his ship! This was, indeed, adding insult to injury. Immediately the conversations came to an end.

There was, however, at least one man in Washington in whom Rose found a friend and kindred spirit. He was none other than Timothy Pickering. Pickering expressed himself as enchanted with Rose's personality and intelligence. He went even further than that. Years before, as Secretary of State, Pickering had been responsible for a law imposing fine and imprisonment on any American who conducted a correspondence with the agents of a foreign power. Ignoring  p46 the law which he himself had devised, he now proposed a plan for conducting a correspondence with Rose upon the latter's return to England. To such extremes had Pickering been brought by his hatred of Jefferson and the party in power!

The Federalist agitation bore fruit in the November election. All of New England returned to the Federalist ranks. Senator John Quincy Adams, running for re‑election as a Republican, was cast out of office — a potent object lesson to men of Massachusetts who violated party tradition. In New York the Federalists made large gains in the legislature. But the Federalist tidal wave was stopped abruptly in Pennsylvania which remained in the Republican column. Her industries, it seems, had profited by the Embargo. The Federalist candidates for President and Vice-President, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina and Rufus King of New York, were defeated, and James Madison of Virginia and George Clinton of New York rode into office. The Virginia Dynasty was saved from a revolution but with considerable loss of prestige. The Electoral College, which had given Jefferson 162 votes in 1804, gave to Madison only 122.

Whether William Pinkney was correct in his estimate of the increasing strength of the Embargo in Great Britain was beyond the point. In the United States it had already failed. Weary, disappointed, and with a sigh of relief, Jefferson prepared to retire to Monticello, leaving little James Madison and his faithful Treasurer, Albert Gallatin, to reap the whirlwind he had sown. "Never," he declared, "did a prisoner released from his chains feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power. Nature intended me for the more tranquil pursuits of science by rendering them my supreme delight."

With distress throughout the land, rumors of rebellion in New England, and a report showing that in that year customs had declined from $16,000,000 to $8,000,000 — a condition, as Gallatin put it, equivalent to war — something had to be done and done quickly. Peaceable coercion had failed, miserably failed. On February 27 the Embargo Act was repealed, the repeal to take effect on March 4, Inauguration Day, as a happy omen of the new administration. Heaven knows, the new administration needed one!

Page updated: 25 Jun 13