The Dueling Decrees

It’s an overused metaphor bordering on cliché, but in 1806 the fledgling United States found itself between the proverbial “rock” — the island home of Great Britain — and “a hard place” — the expansionist empire of France under Emperor Napoleon.

At the time Britain and France were, as usual, at war.  Granted, the Battle of Trafalgar a year earlier had scuttled Napoleon’s plans to conquer the British, but in its wake Napoleon had won several decisive battles against Europe’s other powers, making France the dominant continental power, while Britain remained the dominant sea power.

And then Napoleon decided to expand his conventional war against Britain into a commercial war by initiating what might be called the first of the “dueling decrees.”  This week (Nov. 15) in 1806 Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree, which made it illegal for any nation to trade with Great Britain.

Given its heavy reliance on trade with its former mother country, the United States was greatly dismayed by the Berlin Decree, but then Britain retaliated with its own decree — the Orders in Council — which declared that Britain would blockade all French ports and forbid any foreign nation from trading with France unless that nation first paid a sizeable customs duty to Britain.

Given its heavy reliance on trade with the nation that had helped it rebel against its former mother country, the United States was equally dismayed by this Orders in Council.  But then Napoleon upped the ante with the Milan Decree, which stated that if any nation’s ships submitted to Britain’s Orders in Council, those ships would be considered British property and subject to seizure by the French navy.

At this point America, whose economic existence depended in large part on trade with both nations, responded in a manner that begs another overused metaphor bordering on cliché.  She “bit off her nose to spite her face” by issuing her own decree, the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited American ships from sailing to any foreign port for the purpose of trade.

The Embargo Act was meant to pressure Britain and France to repeal their various decrees by denying them American goods.  Unfortunately, when you are the weakest of the trading partners, embargoes tend to hurt you the most, and within a year American exports went from $110 million to $25 million and imports from $140 million to $55 million. Were it not for increased trade with Caribbean nations and smuggling between America and Canada (a British colony), America’s economy would have imploded.

The “dueling decrees” would have been comic had they not been so tragic.  Indeed, five years later they helped cause a real “duel” between Britain and the United States — the War of 1812.