The new American nation was, at its birth, an experiment surrounded by experiments. Across the Atlantic, Napoleon led Revolutionary France on a spree that destroyed much of the old world order. Across the Pacific, naval powers attempted to establish themselves throughout Oceania’s undiscovered islands. South America had only begun to break free from Europe, and numerous independent nations sought to establish themselves against one another. The newly created American nation found itself caught between the various belligerents, and with almost no navy to protect itself, closed off trade. For the merchant families of New England who had only recently fought to emancipate themselves from restrictions on free trade, the Embargo Act of 1807 was better known as the Dambargo.
The newly minted nation already had some growing pains. Northern merchants based in New England had been at odds with the Southern planter aristocracy since the Revolutionary War. Added to the conflict now were the Kaintucks of the new western states of Tennessee and Kentucky. The numbers of these western pioneers only threatened to grow with the Louisiana Purchase and the eventual organization of Illinois Territory, both of which amounted to double the landmass of all eighteen states in 1812. Further confusing the politics of the nation was the acquisition of the city of Louisiana, the great French merchant city at the mouth of the Mississippi. The lines were drawn between the agrarian Democratic-Republicans who existed mainly in the south, and the industrialist Federalists who found their supporters in the cities of the nation. The signing into law of the Dambargo by Democratic-Republican President Thomas Jefferson was the last straw for a few of the outnumbered communities of New England.
The Dambargo, a portmanteau of ‘damned embargo’, was put in place to counteract international pressure. The over-reported impressment of sailors into both the Napoleonic French and British Royal navies stirred up questions of international honor. Why would the French steal American sailors if they had been so gracious to the nation? Did Britain believe it could push around the former colonies? Most importantly, would the Crown bow to the whims of a group of former colonies that had a fraction of her population, and none of her honor? In an attempt to avoid war, the Dambargo was put in place against not only Britain and France as they fought, but also stopped American ships from undertaking any voyages to foreign ports without executive order.
However, the Dambargo didn’t work as intended. Trade continued to flow, and every nation refused to view themselves as at fault. In the global conflict of the Napoleon Wars, and with almost no navy at hand, the Americans couldn’t control their countrymen, many of whom were the descendants of disgruntled smugglers. The dambargo was only repealed by the passage of the Intercourse Act of 1809, passed within days of President Jefferson leaving office. Unenforceable, the new law allowed trade with all nations except Britain and France. But, with the two main purchasers of all goods to fuel wartime economies, how could the French and British agents be realistically avoided by merchants fueled by profit?
By the outbreak of the War of 1812 under Democratic-Republican President James Madison (who won re-election against his main opponent, Democratic-Republican candidate DeWitt Clinton), the traditionally Federalist stronghold of New England was done with cooperation. With shipping now curtailed due to the massive British naval presence, and the states themselves threatened by northern invasion, riots broke out. Throughout the war, the uncooperative New England population squirmed. Bankers in New England, heads of the institutions that would normally make up the backbone of a war effort, refused to lend. States like Rhode Island refused to allow the use of their militias for defense. The town of Nantucket, defiant as always, refused to declare war and declared itself and its few thousand inhabitants as neutral.
Federalists in New England pulled the final move by calling for a new convention to be held. The struggling party called to other states in New England to send delegates to what would be called the Hartford Convention. Throughout the war, the convention, with some meetings held in secret, supported plans to remove the Three-Fifths Compromise. Extreme and welcomed voices in newspapers discussed the expulsion of the southern and western states from the Union, openly calling for secession. Purportedly, even the governor of Massachusetts contacted Britain to form a secret peace deal, while another unknown figure offered control of New England itself to the Crown in exchange for peace. At the core, the fight was about a changing nation, one that cared less and less about those northern merchants who had suffered under the Dambargo.
The convention, reviled outside of New England, accomplished nothing. The Federalists attempted to force change in Washington, but with the military triumph of the Kaintuck General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, all credibility was lost. The northerners had lost the emotional leverage. Descriptions of a pointless war were replaced with a rugged Tennessee victory over the expert British Peninsular veterans with the help of pirates and ne’er-do-wells. With the end of the convention, the Federalist party drew its last breath, along with the supremacy of those New England states that had lit the powder keg of the American Revolution in the hopes of a nation with free trade as an unshakable principle. Although the guns stopped firing, the effects of this conflict, this disharmony between North, South, and West would eventually come to a breaking point, with or without a Dambargo in place.