Nonintercourse Act (1809) (Major Acts of Congress)
Richard Buel, Jr.
During the Napoleonic Wars of 1803 to 1815, Great Britain and France sought to strangle each other's commerce by seizing the ships of neutral nations carrying their adversary's trade. As the world's leading neutral carrier, the United States was the principal sufferer from this manner of waging war. In December 1807 Congress laid an embargo, a ban on commerce that made it unlawful for American ships to leave American ports. Congress wanted to protect the nation's maritime resources from being seized. The embargo's sponsors also hoped that depriving Britain and France of the benefit of the American carrying trade would lead the belligerent nations to stop seizing U.S. ships.
The embargo caused economic distress at home. The Federalist Party, centered in New England, used that distress to recover political control of the New England states from their rivals, the Republicans. The opposition of the Federalist state governments to the embargo encouraged commercial traders to evade its provisions. Massachusetts, which at that time included present-day Maine, even threatened to make it unlawful to enforce the embargo within the state. New England Federalists also threatened to withdraw from the union with the other states if the embargo was not repealed.
The Republican majority in Congress was divided over how to defend the republic against foreign pressures in the face of such opposition from the New England Federalists. Some wanted to repeal the embargo and go to war against both European powers, despite being almost totally unprepared for hostilities. Others preferred to maintain the embargo even though it was destroying the Republicans' political position in New England and attempts to enforce it threatened to provoke civil conflict. Eventually a Republican majority in Congress agreed to modify the embargo with the Nonintercourse Act of 1809, though this was no one's first choice.
The act prohibited commercial intercourse with Great Britain and France. It excluded the public (armed) vessels of both belligerent nations (Great Britain and France), together with their merchant vessels, from American waters; it made it unlawful to import goods from either of them or their dependencies directly or through third parties; and it repealed the embargo of 1807 (as amended before March 1, 1809).
Although the Federalists opposed the Nonintercourse Act, they preferred it to war with Britain, with whom they desired good relations no matter what the cost in United States relations with France. British naval superiority also allowed Great Britain access to American trade though third parties that it could deny to France. But this feature of Nonintercourse made it seem to the Republican majority like capitulation to Britain. Republicans, both in Congress and the nation, favored accommodating France at the expense of good relations with Britain and felt they had been humiliated by the Federalist minority.
For a brief period after James Madison's inauguration in March 1809 it looked as though the Nonintercourse law might please both parties. Section 11 of the statute authorized the president to revoke its provisions as they applied to any nation that lifted its restrictions against American commerce. David Erskine, the British ambassador, promised President Madison that Britain would revoke its restrictions against the commerce of the United States if Madison, under section 11, released Britain from the effect of Nonintercourse. Madison obliged on April 19, 1809, allowing the swarm of vessels that had sailed with the repeal of the embargo (March 15) to make for British destinations. Soon afterward Madison learned that the British government had disavowed Erskine's agreement. Although Madison reinstated Nonintercourse against Britain, the Republicans felt their attempt to use commercial pressures rather than war to shape the nation's foreign relations had been sabotaged.
Though the Republicans viewed Nonintercourse as a modified embargo, the new law proved no more effective or less difficult to enforce than the original embargo. For this reason the next Congress allowed the Nonintercourse Act to expire in May 1810. However, Nonintercourse was reimposed against Britain in February 1811 under a subsequent statute, after France exempted American commerce from its commercial restrictions. Thereafter relations with Britain deteriorated until war was finally declared in June 1812. Hostilities might still have been avoided had not the Federalists justified every action of the British government, including its rejection of the agreement between Madison and Erskine and its refusal to match France's commercial concessions on the grounds that they were bogus. Federalist behavior persuaded the Republicans that the United States confronted not just a foreign enemy but a dangerous faction within the nation's midst that was in league with Britain.
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