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What is the Non-Intercourse Act?

By James Doehring
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Non-Intercourse Act was a law passed in 1809 by the United States Congress to ban all commerce between Americans and the European nations of France and Great Britain. It was designed to replace the unpopular Embargo Act of 1807, which banned international shipping with all nations. Like the preceding acts, the Non-Intercourse Act was difficult to enforce and widely violated. It was replaced about a year after coming into law and is generally believed to have been a failure.

On 22 June 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard attacked and boarded the USS Chesapeake in American waters in an event known now as the Chesapeake-Leopard affair. In incidents like this, captured American sailors were occasionally forced to serve in the British Navy, an occurrence that enraged the United States government. The US president Thomas Jefferson had decreased the size of the Navy at the time, and was unable to respond forcefully to violations of American sovereignty. Instead, he enacted a series of embargo acts to punish aggressive foreign nations by impacting their economies.

On 1 March 1809, the Non-Intercourse Act replaced the Embargo Act of 1807. The new act forbade all French and British ships from entering American waters except in cases of extreme distress or official government business. It also made it illegal for Americans to trade or offer aid to any such ships that did enter. Importing French or British goods, along with exporting domestic goods to these nations, was forbidden. Finally, the Non-Intercourse Act stated that no American vessels would be permitted to dock at French or British ports.

While the act did open up trade with some foreign nations, it was still overwhelmingly opposed by American citizens. Many feared that a ban on trade with these nations, who were major trading partners, would lead to a loss of jobs and economic stagnation. While the US did suffer economic consequences from the Non-Intercourse Act, the law was circumvented fairly easily in practice. Loopholes in the enforcement of the law effectively allowed goods to be shipped over land routes, such as through the Canadian border, and then sent across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Non-Intercourse Act also failed to change the policies and behavior of France and Great Britain. The act was designed to eventually encourage resumption of trade with either nation that respected the neutrality of American shipping vessels. Emperor Napoleon I of France declared that interference with American ships would cease, but in reality, acts of interference continued. Great Britain made no change in its policies, and tension with the United States continued until open hostilities broke out in the War of 1812. The Non-Intercourse Act was replaced by Macon’s Bill Number 2, which temporarily lifted restrictions on international trade.

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Discussion Comments

By Orcadeal — On Dec 12, 2013
@FeistyFox2: I thought it was interesting that Jefferson enacted the embargo in part because the US lacked a sufficient navy. I saw other sources call this a "diplomatic solution," but as you mentioned, the War of 1812 was the inevitable endgame.

Good point about communications of the time. Given the vast wilderness, scattered and scant number of ships, and people hungry for goods, enforcing a trade embargo must have been a fools errand.

Regarding cartoons, I offer cartoonist Louis Raemaekers of Holland. He didn't necessarily have a single cartoon that became deeply entwined with an event, but Germany did put a bounty on Raemaekers' head for the incendiary nature of his work.

By FeistyFox2 — On Dec 11, 2013
Don't forget about one of the loudest shots fired against the Embargo Act of 1807 (the predecessor to the non-Intercourse Act). It didn't come from an English warship, but rather, a pen.

The embargo act cartoon depicts a smuggler making off with a barrel on his way to a British ship. But the smuggler is firmly in the clutches of a snapping turtle affectionately named "Ograbme," which is "Embargo" spelled backward.

The cartoon represented the general unpopularity of the act among Americans, and in some ways, was mightier than the sword — or the cannon.

Any other cartoons out there that have significantly influenced a political issue?

By Carpell — On Dec 11, 2013

This was a good effort by the US Congress to curtail British bullying of American naval and commercial shipping. But it was destined to fail from the start for a couple of reasons. One was that the British were still mad about losing the American colonies a couple of decades before and wanted to regain control. Secondly, given the widely separated distances and slow communications of the times, there was no real method of enforcing this law. In the end, the War of 1812 was inevitable.

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