With the war in Europe between France and England intensifying, Americans found their rights as neutral traders regularly violated by both French and British navies, and French and British port restrictions further limited American opportunities for commerce. To make matters worse, on numerous occasions, English vessels had boarded American ships and “impressed” many of their crews into service as if they were British subjects. Such disregard for American sovereignty and rights was taken hard by the public, but America’s naval capacities were far from adequate to enforce a due respect on the high seas. Yet doing nothing was not a popular option.
President Jefferson attempted to draw a lesson from our colonial past and impose an embargo of American trade. The hope was that such an embargo would inconvenience European commerce to such a degree as to bring the powers, especially Britain, to that level of respect which American arms were insufficient to obtain. In 1807, the Embargo Act was imposed, interdicting all vessels from entering or exiting American ports. Trade was the life blood of New England, however, and the Embargo hit them especially hard. As weeks moved to months and months to a year, the suffering in the port cities became nearly unbearable. Numerous calls for lifting the interdiction were heard, but none of the offending powers seemed even remotely ready to bargain. Unwilling to surrender the point of honor or to risk outright war, Jefferson’s administration remained steadfast in its policy.
At a certain point, the states began to question not only the efficacy of the measure, but its justice. Should not the risks of trade be borne by the traders themselves? Why a general restriction? If families and communities are ruined, is this not an indication of a policy gone too far? Indeed, so far that it might conflict with a vital principle of constitutional government? The national authority was to engage in defensive action in support of the states and their communities, not in their strangulation. If it could not live up to its military obligations, this was no excuse for an imposition of a total ban on trade, a power not contemplated in the original design.
In the earliest resolutions of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island the hue and cry was again heard. Massachusetts’ legislature, as Thomas Woods noted in his collection of sources, sought only formal political means, and counseled patience on the part of its citizenry as it pursued these avenues of redress. Rhode Island observed that it was “the duty of this general Assembly, while cautious not to infringe upon the constitution and delegated powers and rights of the General Government, to be vigilant in guarding from usurpation and violation, those powers and rights which the good people of this state have expressly reserved to themselves…” Here were the states as Sentinels calling out their warning.
But Connecticut, first through its governor and then its legislature went further still, openly and officially “declining to designate persons to carry into effect, by the aid of military power, the act of the United States, enforcing the Embargo.” And “that the persons holding executive offices under this state, are restrained by the duties which they owe this State, from affording any official aid or cooperation in the execution of the act aforesaid.”
This action went the further step of embracing the idea of non-cooperation, and its precedent went back to colonial legislatures that had refused to cooperate with the enforcement of the Imperial Stamp Act. No force would be applied directly to interdicting federal officials, but no cooperation would be accorded them either. They could do their work on their own, but in the absence of active assistance or support from state institutions, they would find that task far more difficult. No power of the federal government could compel action on the part of the states in this regard.
And here New England’s civil society operated in yet a further way to exert force against the centralized exercise of power, again, much like what had happened in earlier colonial protests. While not directly engaged in administering smuggling, the governments of New England gave tacit affirmation of private actions through their resolutions. New England’s merchants were long practiced in the arts of running goods around imperial restrictions. Now they would do the same with respect to national ones. And the general government found its resources stretched to the breaking point.
Remarkably, Jefferson himself later reflected on this opposition of local authorities. He recalled this episode as a powerful illustration of why local governance is so critically important to the maintenance of a free society! No longer president, he could reflect with some approval on the nature of the opposition he had then faced.
Writing to a friend some eight years after the end of his second term, Jefferson observed that a decentralized polity encouraged a jealous regard for liberty. “What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun?” he asked, “The generalizing all cares and powers into one body.” Praising the small republics, the towns, the wards and counties, he noted that the citizen “will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Napoleon.” And here is where he made the startling recollection: “How powerfully did we feel the energy of this organization in the case of the embargo. I felt the foundations of the government shaken under my feet by the New England townships.”
As the policy was carried on by Madison, Massachusetts would see fit to frame its opposition in more intense language, invoking Madison’s earlier ideas against him. In 1809 it declared its intention to protect the fishing and inter-coastal trading rights of its citizens, by declaring in the spirit of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, that the Embargo was “unconstitutional and void.”
As the European conflict became more intense, the opposition of New England would likewise move from Non-cooperation and private acts of circumvention, to more intensive coordinated state action…