During President Thomas Jefferson’s second term in office, the sovereignty of the United States was challenged by both Great Britain and France. Europe was at war and Napoleon was determined to maintain control over European ports and trade. In a move intended to inflict economic injury on Great Britain, Napoleon established the Continental System, a policy that allowed France to confiscate all British goods entering Europe. As a consequence, trade goods which had made port in British harbors were also considered contraband regardless of their origins or the flag under which they flew. In retaliation, Great Britain, with its much larger navy, ratcheted up its control of the seas and began confiscating trade goods, ships, and sailors on both the oceans and just off the coastal waters of the United States. In June 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake in U.S. coastal waters. Thomas Jefferson was faced with a clear act of war, and an attack on the very sovereignty the United States had fought so hard to establish three decades earlier. Unfortunately, he led a nation as unprepared for war as it was dependent on trade with Europe.
When the modern citizen thinks of war preparation, thoughts usually turn to war machines and armed forces. By the twentieth century, the industrial might of the United States made it easy for the U.S. citizen to forget the difficulties that preparing for war entailed in the early industrial days when Thomas Jefferson was president. There was not simply the need to build up the navy and the army, but also the difficulty of supplying all the materials a navy and an army would require. Many in the United States believed that Europe, especially industrial Great Britain, relied so heavily on U.S. raw materials that they would suffer if those raw materials were denied them. Jefferson was certain that by withholding U.S. raw materials and agricultural products from Great Britain and France that the warring nations would relent and allow the U.S. to remain outside Europe’s conflict. In December, he convinced Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807 which, in short, grounded the U.S. merchant fleet.
Jefferson’s hope that the embargo would force the British and French to respect U.S. sovereignty did not work as he had hoped. Rather it increased smuggling, created discord at home, compounded the economic hardships already faced in much of the United States due to a recession, and spurred the growth of U.S. industrialization and manufacturing. Jefferson was not a proponent of urban manufacturing and industrialization but a believer in the virtue of an agrarian lifestyle. He believed that the United States would become an “empire of liberty” if focus was placed on an agrarian lifestyle and the ills of industrialization were avoided.
Without the ability to export raw materials, U.S. entrepreneurs looked for ways to use them at home. A direct increase in U.S. manufacturing can be traced to this period of time. Of great importance was the development of U.S. textile manufacturing which was still in its early stages when Jefferson set out to embargo British and French trade goods. As strange as it might seem, the notion of supplying standardized and functional uniforms for the armed forces was still rather new. In 1732 Maurice de Saxe wrote of the importance of providing uniforms for the army in addition to food, shelter, and weaponry. While Jefferson believed Europe was dependent on U.S. raw materials, in reality the U.S. was more heavily dependent on Europe for manufactured goods. In order to become a great power like the powers of Europe and defend its sovereignty, the United States would need to industrialize. It would need to produce at home the materials essential for war which included the clothing worn by its armed forces.
Jefferson had hoped that the embargo would not only provide time for the young nation to bolster home defenses and prepare for war, but that it would prevent war altogether by forcing Europe to recognize its dependency on U.S. raw materials. However, the embargo demonstrated two invaluable lessons. First, economic strength was as vital as military might. An empire, even one of liberty, required the economic strength and diversity to withstand the challenges of war, even a war it wanted to avoid. Second, no nation was truly isolated enough to survive on its own. Isolation was a mythical ideal that economic codependency and the nature of war made unrealistic. The fates of the nations of the world were already irrevocably intertwined.