Anglo-American Tensions

Relations with Britain soured during Jefferson’s years in office. When war broke out between Britain and Napoleonic France after the turn of the century, neutral American merchants made huge profits shipping food, supplies, and natural resources to both countries. The British Royal Navy, still the dominant world naval power, began to seize American ships and cargos bound for France in 1805.

Moreover, the British navy also began impressing U.S. sailors for forced servitude on British war ships. Though Britain claimed that they impressed only deserters from the Royal Navy, it is estimated that Britain actually took more than 5,000 Americans illegally.

The Embargo Act

When the British warship HMS Leopard entered American territorial waters and impressed several Americans from the merchant ship USS Chesapeakein 1807, Jefferson was outraged. Fed up with Britain’s and France’s refusal to accept U.S. sovereignty, Jefferson convinced Congress to pass the Embargo Actthat same year to punish both nations.

The Embargo Act forbade American ships from sailing to all foreign ports until Britain and France agreed to respect American shipping rights. Jefferson’s plan backfired, however, for he failed to realize that American merchants needed trade with Europe more than European merchants needed trade with America. Economic depression struck the United States very hard, but Jefferson refused to rescind the Embargo Act even when it became evident that it was failing. The act was repealed only in 1809, two days before Jefferson left office.

Jefferson’s Legacy

All in all, Jefferson was much more successful as a statesman during the American Revolution and as Washington’s secretary of state than as president. On one hand, he established several key precedents, such as the purchase of new lands to expand the United States. On the other hand, his Embargo Act and his repeal of Hamilton’s excise tax ran the country into the ground economically.

Fortunately for Jefferson’s reputation, the long-term benefits of the Louisiana Purchase far outweighed the disastrous effects of the economic depression. Also important was the foundation he laid for democracy and agrarianism that the Jacksonian Democrats would later build upon to expand democracy.

Popular pages: The Constitution (1781–1815)