The Embargo

March 19th, 2013

One of the strengths of the War Department’s papers are the opportunities they provide to learn about the international policies of the Early Republic. An insight on how leaders attempted to negotiate their place in the world as a new nation can be seen in one May 9, 1794 letter.

In 1793 war had broken out between England and revolutionary France. The United States was concerned about how this conflict would affect them. As a nation with a small military that is also physically isolated, the U.S. had used economic sanctions and embargos as a tactic to avoid direct war with Europe since the American Revolution. Some thought that this was the right approach in 1793. But not all agreed. Congressmen Fisher Ames of Massachusetts worried that this embargo would “not make our commerce better” while the “enemy… are not to be wounded in any way.”

Debate on the issue continued until 1794 when British actions pushed the American hand. English ships in the West Indies captured American vessels trading with French merchants there and the U.S. was forced to issue an embargo.

In this May 9 letter Secretary of War Henry Knox warns Governor of Virginia Henry Lee of incoming ships from Europe that would soon arrive at the ports in Norfolk, Virginia. Worried that the embargo may be breached, Knox encouraged Lee to make sure that the ships were turned back. However, he wanted to make sure that the Governor tread lightly in order to prevent the embargo from becoming a war.  Knox urged him to “take such prudent precautions for the prevention of misunderstandings as the delicate state of public affairs strongly requires.”

Luckily, any major problems in the Norfolk ports seem to have been avoided. The embargo would end with the Jay Treaty, which was signed in November of 1794, but did not take effect until February of 1796.  This treaty resolved many of the continuing problems remaining after the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which had ended the American Revolution, and ushered in a decade of peaceful trade between American and Britain.

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