Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Britain, Napoleon, and the American Embargo, 1803–1808

Created January 12, 2012


The Lesson


H.M.S. Leopard attacking U.S.S. Chesapeake, 1807

H.M.S. Leopard attacking U.S.S. Chesapeake, 1807

Credit: Wikipedia

Foreign policy continued to dominate American political concerns between 1800 and 1807. In 1803 war once again broke out between France and Great Britain, and American commercial interests once more became a target for both countries. This lesson will examine the ways in which these countries challenged American neutrality during the Thomas Jefferson administration. By looking at government documents, civic toasts, and newspaper reports students will explore American interpretations of European actions, as well as the logic behind the decision to employ a retaliatory embargo.

Guiding Questions

  • Was an embargo the best means of addressing European depredations on American shipping? Were there other feasible options?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify European attacks on American neutral rights
  • Articulate the logic behind the Embargo Act of 1807
  • Assess the arguments for and against the application of the embargo


To understand American diplomacy after 1800 one must put it in an Atlantic context. After a brief interlude, Britain and France once again moved towards war by April 1803. The United States initially profited from these Napoleonic Wars, but by 1805 they began to pose significant challenges to American neutrality. The problem initially revolved around the “re-export” trade with French West Indies ports. The British Royal Navy had bottled French commerce, but French Caribbean merchants got around the problem by using neutral American vessels to carry their goods. Americans would take the cargo to their home ports. Merchants would subsequently re-export the goods to France, passing them off as American. In 1805 Britain became more than a little displeased with this trade. It declared that merely landing goods in the United States no longer proved that they had been imported and become “American.” Merchants would have to show additional, unspecified proof that vessels actually carried U.S. goods. The Royal Navy subsequently began seizing American vessels engaged in re-exportation.

This violation of neutral rights frustrated Americans, as did the continuing problem of impressment. As the Napoleonic Wars engulfed Europe, Royal Naval press gangs periodically boarded American vessels to reclaim British subjects. At times American citizens were pressed into service. Perhaps the most egregious example occurred in the summer of 1807, when sailors were removed from the American naval frigate U.S.S. Chesapeake. British officials had learned that at least four deserters from the Royal Navy were serving on the Chesapeake, but they had been unable to procure them through diplomatic channels. Thus in June 1807 the more heavily armed frigate H.M.S. Leopard (it was rated for fifty guns, as opposed to the Chesapeake’s thirty eight) approached the Chesapeake and demanded that a search party be allowed to board. The American commander refused and the British opened fire, killing three and wounding eighteen. Unable to defend itself, the Chesapeake struck its colors and the British impressed four sailors. As it turned out, three of the four were Americans; the fourth was hanged by the British for desertion.

There were still other issues complicating the Anglo-American relationship (particularly British violations of American territorial water, and conflicting definitions of blockades and contraband), but shifting French policy made the situation even worse for the United States. In an effort to get around British naval supremacy, Napoleon embarked on a policy of commercial warfare. His plan, known as the Continental System, was intended to destroy British prosperity by cutting off her trade with Europe. The first continental decree—the Berlin Decree of 1806—proclaimed a blockade of the British Isles, excluded from French occupied harbors all neutral vessels that had touched a British port, and declared all British-made goods lawful prize even when owned by neutral countries. Britain responded by proclaiming a blockade of all ports from which British goods were excluded. They also required neutral vessels wishing to trade in Europe to stop in Britain and pay transit duties. Napoleon responded to this law with the Milan Decree, which proclaimed that any neutral vessel submitting to British trade regulations was subject to seizure in French ports.

British and French declarations appeared to render trade with Europe virtually impossible. If American ships complied with French decrees, they would be seized by the British; if they submitted to the British, then the French would seize their goods. Making it worse was the fact that the United States Navy could do little to protect the American merchant fleet. At this time it had thirteen frigates, of which only seven were fit for duty. It did maintain a gunboat fleet for harbor defense, but these could do little actually to engage foreign enemies. The British Navy, by contrast, stood at approximately six hundred vessels, of which one hundred twenty were ships of the line and one hundred sixteen were frigates. Approximately one hundred British vessels patrolled the Western Atlantic alone. Although the French navy was less consequential after its defeat at Trafalgar, Napoleon’s control of Continental Europe meant that American vessels faced regular seizure in European ports.

Losses under the French and British regulations were heavy. In late 1807 the Thomas Jefferson administration decided to retaliate with trade sanctions. Republican Party leaders were convinced that America’s greatest weapon was her economic power. They reasoned that if the United States could successfully remove its goods from international markets, the resulting economic downturn would force Britain and France to alter their diplomatic policy. Thus in December of 1807 Jefferson asked for and Congress passed the Embargo Act, which prohibited American ships from leaving port at all. To enforce it Jefferson received increasingly broad powers, climaxing in the Enforcement Act of 1809, which gave customs officials sweeping power to use the army and navy to suppress smuggling. Enforcement was successful, but many people became disillusioned with the embargo because of its economic effect on the country. Exports, which had peaked at $108,000,000 in 1807, plummeted to $22,000,000 in 1808. The resulting economic crisis hit New England particularly hard and allowed the Federalist Party to re-emerge as a viable political force.

Yet for all this domestic unrest the embargo had very little effect on England or France. The British simply found other sources to provide them with food and raw material, and readily expanded their own exports into South American markets. For his part, Napoleon had already lost much of his maritime trade and hardly noticed any economic impact. He even used the embargo as a pretext for stepping up the seizure of American ships—since they were supposed to be at home, these ships surely were British vessels in disguise.

Faced with domestic unrest and foreign indifference, Congress abandoned the embargo shortly before the end of Jefferson’s administration in 1809.

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the Worksheet PDFs. These files contain excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.

Some general terms students should be able to identify as a result of this lesson (all definitions taken from the Oxford English Dictionary):

Ship of the line: Any vessel large enough to take part in a naval “line of battle.” They typically carried at least 54 guns, and possibly as many as 90.

Frigate: A vessel carrying from 28 to 60 guns on the main deck and a raised quarter-deck and forecastle.

Embargo: A prohibitory order, forbidding the ships of a foreign power to enter or leave the ports of a country, or native ships to proceed thither, generally issued in anticipation of war. An embargo may also be laid on particular branches of commerce, for fiscal purposes. Have students use the companion interactive, The American Embargo.

Sanction: A specific penalty enacted in order to enforce obedience to a law.

Impressment: The act or practice of forcibly taking sailors for public service. For more on the issue of impressment, see the EDSITEment lesson “The United States Confronts Great Britain, 1793-1796.”

It is also suggested that a classroom set of dictionaries be on hand for students to look up any unfamiliar words from the sources. If a set is not available, you might want to assign a vocabulary list or give the students a list of definitions of words with which you might think they would struggle.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. European Turmoil

The resumption of war in Europe in 1803 posed significant challenges to American neutrality. The French and the British had put policies in place which made it illegal for the U.S. to trade with both countries at the same time. American merchants risked inspection of ships, seizure of goods and impressments by trying to continue business as usual with Europe. In late 1807 the Thomas Jefferson administration decided to retaliate with trade sanctions, reasoning that the removal of American goods from international markets would force Britain and France to alter their diplomatic policy. Thus in December of 1807 Jefferson asked for and Congress passed an embargo act.

In this activity students will read documents and answer questions that describe British and French trade policies, and the U.S. response to them. Divide students into groups of three. Group one will read and answer the documents for Great Britain. Group two will read the documents for France and Group three will read those for the United States. These documents are available in their entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed sites the American Memory Project, Teaching American History, and the Avalon Project, but excerpts of each may be found on pages 1-8 of the Worksheet PDF for the first activity.

Group 1: Great Britain

British Orders in Council, November 1807: (pages 1-2 of the PDF, questions on page 3)

  • To what French action(s) is the British Council reacting?
  • List some of the steps the British will take in retaliation for French actions.
  • What fraudulent activity is described?
  • How do these orders impact the United States as it tries to trade freely and with neutrality wherever customers can be found?

Group 2: France

The Berlin Decree, November 21, 1806: (pages 4-5 of the PDF, questions on page 6)

  • List some of the ways that Napoleon suggests the British have prevented neutral nations from trading with the continent.
  • List several orders that describe how France and its allies will deal with British encroachment.

The Milan Decree, February 16, 1808: (page 6 of the PDF)

  • According to this document, how will the French deal with all ships stopped by the British?

Group 3: United States

Jefferson’s Third Annual Message to Congress, October 7, 1803: (pages 7-8)

  • What steps does the document state will be taken to ensure the neutrality of the United States?
  • What steps will be taken if the neutrality of the United States is abused?
  • By what authority does Jefferson make these claims on behalf of the United States?

After completing the answers to the above questions, the teacher will lead a class discussion to produce a list of issues that divided the United States and the European belligerents. Students should write their list on the worksheet on page 9 of the Text Document. After discussing these lists, students (either for homework or in class if time permits) should imagine that they have been assigned the job of advising the President on a course of action in dealing with this situation. They should cite specific evidence from the documents in their responses. Letters should be at least 250 words.

Before they write their memoranda students should be reminded that the United States Navy was not in a position to protect the American merchant fleet. At this time it consisted of a mere thirteen frigates, of which only seven were fit for duty. It did maintain a gunboat fleet for harbor defense, but these could do little actually to engage foreign enemies. The British Navy, by contrast, stood at approximately 600 vessels, of which 120 were ships of the line and 116 were frigates. Approximately 100 British vessels patrolled the Western Atlantic alone. Although the French navy was less consequential after its defeat at Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon’s control of Continental Europe meant that American vessels faced regular seizure in European ports.

Activity 2. A Side of Toast

Embargo Act interactiveThe Embargo Act of 1807 forbade all international trade to and from American ports. President Jefferson hoped that Britain and France would be persuaded of the value and the rights of neutral commerce. In January, 1808, the prohibition was extended to inland waters and land commerce to halt the skyrocketing trade with Canada and with Spanish East Florida. Merchants, sea captains, and sailors were naturally unhappy to find themselves without income and to see the ships rotting at the wharves. All sorts of tricks were used to circumvent the law. Enforcement powers were gradually expanded in 1808 and 1809, and this particularly frustrated New Englanders who looked on the scheme as an attempt to defraud them of a livelihood. Ultimately, the daring attempt to use economic pressure in a world at war was not successful. Britain and France stood firm.

This activity will investigate American discontent with and support for the embargo. First, each student should read the excerpted section of the Embargo (available in its entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project, and in excerpted form on page 1 of the Worksheet PDF for the second activity) and complete the questions that follow (in worksheet form on pages 1-2).

Have students use the accompanying interactive on the Embargo Act.

Embargo Act of 1807:

  • List the methods of conveyance, products or cargo, and places affected by the embargo.
  • What two things are necessary before loading cargo on a boat or ship plying United States’ waters?
  • What is the method of enforcement for the embargo?

After discussing the answers as a whole class, students should then be divided into pairs to read a set of newspaper editorials, located at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History. These documents show the differences in regional and political reaction to the embargo. One student will read the Republican documents and answer their corresponding questions, while the other student will investigate the Federalist documents. Once they have finished the students in each pair will exchange their papers, so that each student has an opportunity to review his or her partner’s answers. The teacher will then use the following questions to lead a whole class discussion.

  • How did views of the embargo differ in different regions of the United States? Differ because of political affiliation?
  • What reasons can you give to explain these differences in opinion?


Editorial from the Richmond Enquirer, December 10, 1808: (page 3)

  • Why are the Americans from this region “sick” of the embargo?
  • What impact has the embargo had on agricultural production?

Editorial from the Carthage Gazette, March 6, 1809: (pages 3-4)

  • Are the authors of this article for or against the embargo?
  • What type of financial problems are the people of Tennessee experiencing?

Editorial from the Boston Independent Chronicle, January 4, 1808: (pages 4-6)

  • Are the authors of this article for or against the embargo?
  • Who is the “contemptible minority?”
  • How has the “contemptible minority” portrayed America to the British?
  • What is the author’s answer to “why is the embargo laid?”
  • Describe the larger political conspiracy presented by this author.


Editorial from the Baltimore Federal Republican, July 6, 1808: (page 7)

  • Is the author of this article for or against the embargo?
  • What impact will the embargo have on the nation’s future prosperity?

Editorial from the New York Evening Post, February 2, 1808: (pages 7-8)

  • Is the author of this article for or against the embargo?
  • How does the author suggest that President Jefferson is a hypocrite?

Editorial from the Boston Gazette, January 18, 1808: (pages 8-9)

  •  Is the author of this article for or against the embargo?
  • State some of the reasons that the author suggests embargoes have been issued in the past. How is this one different?
  • What points does the author make to show that this embargo is premature?
  • Who would the author like to see America trade with? Why?

The second part of this activity asks students to become familiar with the concept of a toast. Toasts were delivered at formal gatherings such as civic dinners, Fourth of July celebrations, or militia musters. Prearranged, they were offered by community leaders and would reflect both the toasters’ and the crowd’s political inclinations. The crowds would often register their enthusiasm for various toasts through “huzzahs,” cannon fire, or other outbursts, and at times were given the opportunity to offer spontaneous toasts. These public rituals, along with the full list of toasts, would subsequently be published in local newspapers. Editors often would disseminate these reports widely as a means of bringing together like-minded citizens into a broad, partisan political network.

This activity will ask students to utilize and apply understanding of this facet of the era. Have all students read the two toast documents provided in this activity. They are posted in their entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed websites Teaching American History and American Centuries: View from New England.

Fourth of July Toasts, published in the Richmond Enquirer July 5, 1808: (page 10)

  • Are the authors of this toast for or against the embargo?
  • What historical event is being spoken of in points one through nine?
  • How do points ten through seventeen address the current crisis with France and Great Britain?

Toasts for Independence, Massachusetts, 1808: (page 11)

  • Are the authors of these toasts for or against the embargo?
  • Which specific points can show the authors support or contempt for the embargo?

Toast from New York Evening Post, July 6, 1808: (page 12)

  • Why would the author of this toast wish “long life” to President Jefferson?

As a whole class, create a list of common characteristics that can be found in these toasts. Students will divide themselves into a group of Republicans and a group of Federalists then create a “toast” that reflects the viewpoint of their party. Students should write their toast on the worksheet provided on page 13 of the Worksheet PDF. Students will present their toast in the original spirit by asking one member deliver the first couple of points and then using the other members to add points to the toast delivered to the class. After the entire toast is delivered any other member of the class may add their own points to the toast if the “spirit” moves them.


All questions for each set of documents can be graded, as well as the group questions from activity one. Participation in group discussion can also serve as a grade.

A final essay prompt to tie this lesson together might be given to students upon completion of activity two.

  • Explain why the Jefferson administration resorted to an embargo in dealing with Great Britain and France. Was this an effective way of dealing with this crisis? Justify your answer with specific points from the documents.

The responses to this prompt could be up to 250 words.

Extending The Lesson

One way that this lesson could be extended would be to ask students to review the document Impressment of American Seamen, December 5, 1803, located at the American Memory Project. Using this document they could be asked to create a pie graph or other graphic that visibly shows the complexities of race, citizenship, nationalism, and British Imperial action. Students could also write a short 250 word analysis of their findings.

Another suggestion would be to review the document “Aggressions by the Belligerents, July 6, 1812,” also located at American Memory. It will give students better insight into the numbers of American vessels seized by the French and British between 1800 and 1812.


EDSITEment-Reviewed Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Kris Ray, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Tucker Bacquet, Lexington High School (Lexington, OH)