Unexpected Consequensces: Embargoes in the Early 1800s

Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 did not work out the way he had planned. The restricted flow of British goods entering the United States spurred the development of U.S. manufacturing and changed society. Even the Embargo Act’s replacement the Nonintercourse Act, which allowed for trade with nations other than Great Britain or France, did not halt the changes occurring within the United States. Interestingly, two changes in domestic life resulted because of the embargo and war. These changes were the increased investment into cotton textile manufacturing, and the development of iron, particularly the production of cast iron. Eventually these developments in U.S. manufacturing would provide cheaper textiles for the home, and promote changes in the production of food due to the proliferation of the cooking stove.

In the early 1790s Samuel Slater helped develop the first modern cotton mill in the United States, but it would be two decades later, during the time of embargoes and war, that Francis Cabot Lowell’s textile mill system, which incorporated into one location the production of cotton thread and the finished woven cotton fabric, was built. These changes reduced the cost of production and increased productivity thereby making cotton fabric more available to the average household. Prior to these changes in cotton textile manufacturing, cotton was considered a luxury fabric. Whereas flax could be grown easily and turned into linen by the skilled spinners and weavers in the United States, cotton fabric was typically imported prior to the development U.S. manufacturing in the early 1800s.

In addition to the availability of less expensive textiles, changes in cooking methods were occurring due to the new technology of the cooking stove. While the first modern cooking stoves began appearing in the mid-1700s, it wasn’t until the end of the century that the major flaws had been worked out. Yet the cooking stove remained outside the reach of the average home due to the high cost of cast iron in the United States. The embargoes and the War of 1812 highlighted the need for increased domestic production of iron, and by the 1820s iron production had spread through Pennsylvania with Pittsburg becoming known as the “smoky city.”[1]The greater availability and affordability of cast iron stoves changed the way food was prepared. Not only were the stoves safer than open fires, they allowed the cook a greater range in what they prepared. No longer limited to a stewpot or spit, a woman could prepare a larger variety of food for her family without the need of additional labor in the home.

Thomas Jefferson had opposed men like Alexander Hamilton who had promoted the development of U.S. manufacturing. The ills of industrialization were not unknown to both Jefferson and Hamilton, but while Jefferson preferred to believe that the agrarian lifestyle was superior to manufacturing and would better promote liberty, men like Hamilton understood that economic power would be required to protect that very same liberty. The production of raw materials alone would not be enough to propel the United States to greatness. Without economic greatness, liberty would always be threatened by the dangers of imperialism and war. So while Jefferson’s embargo was meant to pressure the European nations into respecting U.S. sovereignty, it acted as an affirmation that U.S. manufacturing was vital to U.S. survival. The embargoes also helped change domestic life in the United States. Textiles for bedding and clothing became more available and less expensive, and the entire method of cooking was transformed. The U.S. response to international conflict in the early 1800s resulted in the unexpected consequence of increased investment in manufacturing which in turn changed society by transforming life in the home.

[1] Anne Madarasz, “Tracing the Smoky City,” Western Pennsylvania History, 2002, (accessed October 18, 2014),  https://journals.psu.edu/wph/article/viewFile/5111/4894.

War Hawks

In the spring of 1811, a group of young men arrived in Washington, D.C. to fill congressional posts. Led by men like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, these new members of congress called for stronger measures in dealing with Europe and in dealing with the American frontier. War was viewed as the answer to problems unresolved by diplomacy or embargo. Europe, it seemed, placed little value on U.S. sovereignty. The wars of Europe threatened U.S. economic stability, and increased the British tendency to confiscate U.S. ships and impress U.S. sailors. On the western frontier, the native population was less friendly to the United States than they were to British Canada, thereby causing the increased worry in the United States that Great Britain might use the natives to further challenge the sovereignty of the United States. Additionally, Spain did little to curb the native raiding parties that caused havoc along the U.S. southern border. The War Hawks, as the new congressmen were called, believed that war was not only inevitable, but also the only practical solution.

Henry Clay stated, “…where is the motive for longer delay? … Our wrongs have been great; our cause is just; and if we are decided and firm, success is inevitable.” He continued with assurances that the United States was not only prepared but that Britain would not bother with another war in America. “The idea is too absurd to merit a moment’s consideration.”[1] By the end of 1814, the British had burned Washington and U.S. leaders in the northeast were discussing succession as a solution to the economic crisis plaguing their region. However it was not battle victory that ended the war which Clay had so eagerly sought, but diplomacy that ended it; ended it before the famous victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans. The United States had fought once more to establish its sovereignty but peace was not won by U.S. military prowess, rather once again the British grew weary of war with the Americans and a diplomatic solution was sought by both sides. Clay had been right to some extent when he said the British would not want to fight on American soil, not after such a long battle with Napoleon.

Europe was war weary and the United States, while not strong enough to defeat its armies and navies, was strong enough to make war an unappealing prospect. Additionally, all of Europe was ready to see an end to revolution and the international wars which had caused immeasurable strife for decades. The powers of Europe, under the new Concert of Europe, would go to great lengths to prevent war and would work to create a balance of power that would deter nations from seeking war when dealing with their neighbors. This dedication on their part would afford the United States the opportunity to grow as a nation both in size and strength without being entangled in or harmed by European war.

U.S. politicians dedicated to expansionist’s policies were well aware of the European frustrations with war. In the years following the end of the War of 1812, the United States would capitalize on Europe’s preoccupation with keeping peace at home. It would expand westward and southward. Great Britain, with its powerful navy still intact after decades of war, was the only nation which truly challenged the United States, and the British seemed content to focus on trade rather than colonization in the Americas.

While the U.S. managed to free itself from the machinations of Europe during the War of 1812, there may have been some unexpected consequences. The war may have increased the belief that a weaker nation could defeat a much greater military force simply by wearing down the enemies desire to fight. The United States would become an example that many would emulate in the future, not always to the benefit of the United States or its allies.

Additionally, the war promoted the notion that a just cause made for a successful war. Success was not inevitable as Henry Clay had stated, and in truth, success was anything but inevitable. Military theorist and Prussian general Carl Von Clausewitz wrote that war was a “game in which Time and Chance shuffled the cards; but in its signification it was only diplomacy somewhat intensified, a more vigorous way of negotiating, in which battles and sieges were substituted for diplomatic notes.”[2] In the case of the War of 1812, “time and chance” favored the United States. War may, in the end, be unavoidable, but success in war is never guaranteed regardless of the rhetoric and zeal of people best labeled as War Hawks.

[1] Henry Clay, “Letter in Support of the War of 1812,” 1812, (accessed October 16, 2014), http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-in-support-of-the-war-of-1812/.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Dominique Poirier and J. J. Graham, Kindle ed., 2010.

Intertwined: Codependency and War

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.

National Defense: U.S. Shores or Foreign Lands

Foreign wars are difficult to avoid particularly if they interrupt the flow of commerce or pose a threat to national defense. In the nineteenth century, the goal was to avoid foreign wars if at all possible. Thomas Jefferson, recognizing the need to address national defense, particularly the defense of U.S. harbors, instigated a policy of using a fleet of gunboats as a means of protecting the coast. While Jefferson argued that the defense of the U.S. homeland was enough, others argued that the U.S. needed to be prepared to protect the seas and U.S. trade interests. While the War of 1812 proved that Jefferson’s gunboat defense was not enough to keep the U.S. out of danger, the public was still of the belief that the United States should focus on the defense of its borders rather than the preparation for future foreign wars.

The desire to protect U.S. borders while avoiding the entanglements of foreign wars was a desire difficult to achieve. Often international conflict disrupted commerce long before the U.S. coastline was threatened. Defensive policies designed to protect the homeland did not always factor in the need to export war in order to protect economic interests from being threatened. By the end of the twentieth century, the protection of strategic national interests was intrinsically entwined with the protection of economic wellbeing – domestic and international. National defense often meant transporting U.S. personnel and equipment to foreign lands rather than keeping them on U.S. shores. However, in 1916 the United States, as during Jefferson’s day, still hoped to protect its national interests by protecting its borders and remaining a neutral trading partner with Germany and with Germany’s enemies. Germany, on the other hand, did not view the U.S. policy to be in the best interest of Germany and acted accordingly.

In the years before the United States entered the war, German U-boats became a clear danger to U.S. trade and the sinking of the Lusitania made it clear that civilian travel was also risky while Europe was at war. The Zimmerman Telegram exposed Germany’s decision to view the United States as a threat, but even before the Zimmerman Telegram and the official entry of the United States into the war, Germany threatened U.S. national defense and economic security. On July 30, 1916 German saboteurs carried out a plot to destroy munitions on an island in New York Harbor. The Black Tom Explosion, as the event became known, was a clear act of war designed to disrupt U.S. military aid to Great Britain. Seven people were killed and the economic costs were valued in the millions. Yet, the United States did not immediately go to war. It would take another war and the dawn of the nuclear age to convince the public that preparing to fight on foreign lands was as vital to U.S. defense as was protecting U.S. shores.

Empires and Keeping the Peace

It is clear that as the European empires struggled to maintain control over their colonial possessions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States searched for footholds in the regions formally under European control. In the nineteenth century, the United States expanded westward and southward absorbing territory which had been held, often loosely, by Spain. In some cases, the United States annexed regions which became part of the union. In other cases U.S. businessmen, or filibusters, simply moved in and dominated the local economies. Due to the Napoleonic Wars and political shifts in Europe, little by little, European interests, or the ability to capitalize on the interests, in the Americas dwindled. Even Great Britain, the great empire of the 1800s, intensified its focus on developing colonial markets in Africa, India, and China rather than the Americas. Certainly the United States was not left alone in the Americas, but it was able to expand its sphere of influence, especially economic influence with greater ease during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

While the War of 1812 did not gain the United States territorial holdings in Canada as some had hoped it would, it did establish that the United States was willing to use war as a means to expand, even war with European powers.[1] During the decades following the war, the United States made it very clear to Europe that it intended to be the regional power in the Americas, and that it would not tolerate European interference. Great Britain was actively expanding and defending its worldwide empire, but U.S. Secretary of State John Q. Adams was determined to prevent Great Britain from taking advantage of Spain’s weakened control of territories in the Americas. In a debate with British Minister Stratford Canning in 1821, Adams pointed out that Britain was seeking to gobble up the world markets, even quipping that Britain might have designs on “a piece of the moon.” When the debate circled around to the question of whether the United States still had designs on Canada, Adams replied, “Keep what is yours and leave the rest of the continent to us.”[2]

Shortly after this debate on the expansion of spheres of influence and territorial acquisition, Adams drafted what would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. He encouraged President Monroe to take a bold stand on the issue of European interference in the Western Hemisphere. It did not matter whether it was Great Britain, France, or Russia who had their sights set on a piece of the Americas. The United States declared that it would act to prevent the further exploitation of the Americas by Europe, but that did not mean it would not exploit the Americas for its own benefit. Nor did it mean that it would not seek to spread U.S. political and economic influence beyond the Americas.

During the decades preceding the War of 1812, revolution and independence movements disrupted imperial control, but in the years preceding World War I, a rise in nationalist revolutions set the stage for the demise of the great empires of the previous centuries. Colonialism would be challenged and eventually, after a second world war, eliminated in its previous form. Yet, even as the sun was setting on the colonial system which had helped create the empires of the past, a new colonial structure began to emerge. While the world focused on the war raging in Europe, President Wilson was flexing U.S. muscle in the Americas.[3] Neocolonialism became the policy of a new and emerging empire – the United States. Maybe not an empire in the traditional sense, but an empire in how it used its influence to set economic and political policy favorable to its own national interests rather than the interests of the neighbors it policed. As the great empires of Europe warred and their colonial control declined over the resource rich regions which had once made them powerful, the United States (and later the Soviet Union) expanded a growing economic and political sphere of influence that would rival any traditional empire.  In some cases, the sphere would include a military presence or intervention to keep the peace. This was not necessarily a peace that benefited the citizens in the new nations emerging in the wake of decolonization, as much as it benefited U.S. economic interests; but as the United States would remind itself from time to time, peace even a forced peace, was better than war. When the forced peace protected U.S. economic growth and stability, forced peace would certainly, at least to the United States, be the lesser evil, even if it made the United States seem very much a twentieth century empire.



[1] Walter T. K. Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 73-74.

[2] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 134.

[3] Herring, 386.

Injuries, Indignities, and Outrage

On the first day of June 1812, President James Madison delivered an address to Congress apprising them of the “injuries and indignities” affecting the nation. American citizens had been “torn away from their country and from everything dear to them” by a nation who had not declared war on the United States, but who was determined to use U.S. citizens as the “melancholy instruments” of war. [1] Nine days later, Congress authorized a declaration of war and Madison asked the nation to be “vigilant and zealous in discharging the duties” which would be asked of them during the perilous years of conflict. Furthermore he asked that they support “all measures which [might] be adopted by the constituted authorities for obtaining a speedy, a just, and an honorable peace.” [2] Drawn into an international conflict, the United States set out to defeat its adversaries and prove that while it was still only a fledgling power, it would not tolerate abuses to its citizens and national interests.

Entangling alliances and international rivalries ignited another war in 1914. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson hoped to avoid being drawn into the chaotic vortex of European war, but like Madison, he recognized that the actions of others might make war inevitable. Certainly the United States could not sit idly by while the safety of its citizens was threatened.

In a conversation with Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels in 1916, Wilson stated, “I can’t keep the country out of war . . . any little German lieutenant can put us into the war at any time by some calculated outrage.”[3] Wilson, despite running his 1916 presidential campaign on the slogan of “He Kept Us Out of War,” understood the precipice upon which the United States stood.[4]

Earlier in the year, the Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa had attacked and set ablaze the New Mexican town of Columbus. This attack on U.S. sovereignty, on its own, might not have been the indignity that set the nation on a path to war, but when the Zimmerman Telegram was made public in January 1917, it became clear that Germany planned to utilize the animosity between the United States and Mexico as a tool to weaken the ability of the United States to aid Great Britain and France. Wilson could no longer avoid war and plunged off the precipice. While the sinking of the Lusitania had upset many in the United States, the notion that Germany was plotting with Mexico to seize parts of the Southwest outraged the public. The telegram would be the “outrage” that would propel the nation into war.

A policy of neutrality during a time of European conflict had once again failed to keep the United States out of European warfare. The United States could only ignore a limited amount of national injury, indignity, and outrage before it would strike back.




[1] James Madison, “Special Message to Congress on the Foreign Policy Crisis – War Message” (June 1, 1812), Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia, (accessed January 21, 2014), http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3614.

[2] James Madison, “Proclamation of a State of War with Great Britain” (June 19, 1812), Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia, (accessed September 19, 2014), http://millercenter.org/president/madison/speeches/speech-3615.

[3] C. H. Cramer, Newton D. Baker: A Biography (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1961), 86.

[4] “1916 Election,” The President Woodrow Wilson House, n.d., (accessed September 18, 2014), http://www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org/1916-election.

Historical Jouney Begins: The Birth of PithyHistory.com

Independence and revolution, both in the English colonies and in Europe, had spawned a series of wars; wars that crossed oceans and challenged the sovereignty of nations. The years of 1814 and 1815 saw the end of much of this conflict as the wars tied to the American and French Revolutions finally came to an end. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte was finally, once and for all, removed from power. In the Americas, the United States defended its sovereignty against a mightier foe, proving that independence had not been a fluke or folly. In August 1814, the US capital, Washington, DC fell to the British, but in September the valiant defenders of Baltimore held firm at Fort McHenry with a legend and a national anthem emerging from the smoke of cannon bombardment.

European powers had grown weary of war by 1814 and sought peace. More importantly, they sought for the means to prevent future chaos due to revolution, and they forged a balance of power system that they hoped might maintain European stability and thereby reduce war. One hundred years later, the balance of power so diligently carved out after the Congress of Vienna and the peace negotiations of 1814 and 1815 was shattered as war engulfed not simply a region but the world in its entirety.

As 2014 comes closer to an end, thoughts should rightfully turn to these long ago conflicts. There are lessons to be learned from the causes and mistakes of these wars. Over the next few weeks, I will seek to identify these lessons. I will look at issues of sovereignty, economic strife, population growth and migration, political competition, and the role of empires in forging peace and provoking war. This is my journey, a journey in which I hope to record my thoughts and observations in a format easily shared with others. It is not my goal to create long lectures but rather create a series of short essays that intrigue and inspire the further explorations of history.