American economic sanctions against Great Britain, 1806-1812
Watson, Graham E PhD thesis, University of Glasgow. (1973)
As the most important neutral maritime nation in the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, the United States endured much abuse of its neutral rights as Britain and France tried to Use the considerable commercial power of the United States as a weapon against each other. The failure of American diplomacy and the lack of a strong navy caused Thomas Jefferson to impose economic sanctions, using American commercial strength in order to win their respect for American neutrality and independence. The first efforts at coercion apparently failed. The weak Non-Import-action Act of 1806 and the much more radical Embargo Act of 1807 were swept away in 1809 as a result of American mercantile protests against the effects of sanctions upon the American economy. The Embargo Act also seemed to have failed against Britain. Though some economic dislocation was caused, this was overcome by the British development of the Latin American market. The failure of the Embargo Act increased the scorn with | which the British government viewed the American position. In 1809, an even weaker measure, the Non-Intercourse Act, was imposed but it was revoked in 1810. In the long-term, however, these early efforts at sanctions had a cumulative effect which laid the foundations of future success. The Embargo and Non-Importation Acts had encouraged British trade with Latin America: a market less able to sustain a growth of British exports and much more speculative than the North American market. The repercussions of this weakening of the base of British trade were not felt until the summer of 1810 when the losses sustained in Latin America precipitated a depression. The actual and potential effects of sanctions helped to create a Whig opposition movement against the government's maritime policies. Though unsuccessful, the basis for a stronger movement was laid. In addition, the Non-Intercourse Act, together with the Continental System and inflation created a general uncertainty in British international trade which made it more difficult to weather the depression of 1810. This slump was essential for the ultimate success of sanctions. The cumulative effect of earlier sanctions had helped cause the depression, the imposition of an effective Non-Importation Act early bin 1811 lessened the possibility of a quick recovery, and in the consequent Whig campaign against the British government sanctions became linked politically with the restoration of prosperity. The Whigs argued that the re-opening of the American market would restore prosperity and that the only way to achieve this was to end sanctions by revoking the Orders in Council, the essential and controversial part of the government's maritime policies. With this argument, against a background of growing economic and social distress, the opposition to the Orders in Council policy grew rapidly in the early months of 1812, The movement became strong enough to force the government to agree to a parliamentary inquiry on the subject. This concession was the first major indication that the British government was responding to the pressures created by sanctions. Until then the government had remained contemptuous of the United States, had not been overly concerned about the economic dislocations caused by sanctions, and was little moved by the possibility of war with the United States if sanctions were to fail. The belief that the sanctions were more damaging to the American economy, and that the war against Napoleon must take priority dominated government thinking. Only the growth of opposition, combined with the increasing parliamentary weakness of the government in 1812 led to concessions being made in order to keep the government in power. The parliamentary inquiry, the assassination of Spencer Perceval, and the consequent emergence of a weak administration under Lord Liverpool after a month-long crisis, anxious to avoid further crises and achieve popularity, produced the atmosphere in which concessions to American economic pressure were possible. To remain in power, Liverpool revoked the Orders in Council in June 1812. One of the main aims of sanctions had been achieved, but, coincidentally, despairing of success from sanctions, the Americans declared war on Britain to protect their neutrality. Sanctions were a qualified success. Directed widely against the whole British economy for limited periods, instead of being directed in strength against points of greatest vulnerability, such as the Peninsular campaign, sanctions achieved a success commensurate with the effort involved.