On June 22, 1807, the American frigate USS Chesapeake set sail from Norfolk, Virginia for the waters of the Atlantic to join in a squadron heading to the Mediterranean to battle the Barbary Pirates. The 50-gun British warship HMS Leopard immediately pounced upon the ship and sought to board her seeking deserters from the Royal Navy. When American Commodore James Barron refused the demand, the Leopard fired a warning shot and then loosed a deadly broadside at the Chesapeake. The thunderous barrage was followed by others, and the beleaguered American ship could only offer meager resistance. As the smoke drifted around the opposing ships, three American sailors lay dead and eighteen writhed in agony from horrific wounds. Barron had no choice but to surrender, and the British seized four seamen though only one was a British subject.
The Chesapeake incident set off a wave of outrage in the United States. Many Americans wanted war, and the administration of Thomas Jefferson responded in an appropriately bellicose manner. Even though Jefferson had assailed the Washington and Adams administrations for their supposed centralizing tendencies of federal taxes to support a peacetime military establishment particularly during the 1798 Quasi-War with France, Jefferson quickly adopted similar policies to deal with the British.
President Jefferson implemented a warlike stance that resembled the vision of his old nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson strengthened the coastal defenses, built up the Navy, asked the state governors to mobilize 100,000 militiamen, and won congressional authorization for $4 million to add eight new U.S. Army regiments. But, like his predecessor, John Adams, Jefferson continued to pursue peace as an alternative to actually going to war. Therefore, he went to Congress and asked for a trade embargo to punish the British and pressure them to respect American neutral rights.
By this time, Great Britain and France had been at war more or less continuously for a decade and a half. Both empires had violated American neutral rights by seizing American vessels and impressing their sailors into service for the respective navies. In fact, the 1790s were a history of repeated violations and failed attempts to reconcile the issue satisfactorily. The controversy only heated up recently when the British tightened its restrictive policy of foreign nations trading with France and seized scores of American vessels in the summer of 1805. The French followed in late 1806, when Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte announced his Continental System banning all trade with the British. Tensions boiled over with the Chesapeake incident.
Besides Jefferson’s mobilization for war, Congress obliged another of the president’s requests and passed the Embargo Act in the waning days of 1807. The Embargo Act prohibited all American ships from trading internationally and banned all American exports, though curiously it did not ban British imports carried by their ships. The embargo resulted in a disastrous collapse of American trade and had significant effects on American domestic politics.
Ironically, the Embargo Act was remarkably successful in hurting Americans a lot more than the British. American exports declined a whopping eighty percent while imports dropped sixty percent. American ships, sailors, and dock workers sat idle across the Atlantic seaboard, but no region was as materially affected as New England, the bastion of the Federalist Party. New Englanders were so irate they spoke openly of secession. It seemed to be a golden opportunity for the Federalists to recover their political strength after eight years of Jeffersonianism and the electoral triumph of the Republicans.
The Republican candidate was James Madison, who had served as Secretary of State under Jefferson and ran with New Yorker George Clinton. Madison was roundly and severely criticized for his vehement support of the embargo in the months leading to the election, but the Federalists could not capitalize on this and were rapidly becoming a spent force in electoral politics. The Federalists ran a geographically-diverse ticket of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney from South Carolina and Rufus King of New York but could only muster victories in the Electoral College in five New England states. James Madison won a resounding victory by winning twelve states including some in the North.
The Congress voted to repeal the hated Embargo Act, and the repeal took effect the day President Madison took office on March 4, 1809. Although the Congress would pass weaker trade restrictions, the European belligerents would continue to violate American neutrality. As a result, the Congress would declare war against Great Britain in the War of 1812. The Federalists generally opposed the war and that unpopular stance was coupled with a seemingly disloyal convention for secession. Within a decade of the 1808 election, the Federalists disappeared from the American party system.
Tony Williams is the author of five books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, co-authored with Stephen Knott.