Day By Day

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

This Day In History

Today is Festivus -- the holiday invented by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. It's for those of you who subscribe to none of the recognized religions.

So if you are so inclined, gather around your aluminum poles and eat your Festivus dinner (consisting of meat loaf or tofu substitute) and follow up with the traditional "airing of grievances" [my personal favorite] protesting and lamenting every indignity visited on you in the past year, and finish with a round of "feats of strength" which consists of wrestling and pinning the head of household until he starts crying.

Another tradition associated with the holiday is the observance of "Festivus miracles" which consist of noting ordinary and entirely unremarkable events and labeling them "miracles".

You can read about Festivus here.

On this day in 1807 the Napoleonic Wars were raging and both French and British warships were intercepting American trading vessels and confiscating their cargoes. American commerce was suffering and there had been hostile incidents such as the Chesapeake-Leopard affair in which a British warship fired upon and boarded an American commercial vessel, confiscated its cargo, and impressed some of its crew. American outrage was running high, but the nation [largely due to Jefferson's demilitarization policies] was in no position to defend its neutrality. Recognizing that a military response was out of the question, Jefferson instead resorted to economic pressure such as had been tried in the runup to the American Revolution -- a boycott. Congress responded to Jefferson's request by passing on this date the infamous Embargo of 1807.

This ban on foreign commerce nearly destroyed the nation. It devastated New England's commercial economy while having relatively little effect on the agricultural economy of the South. Yankee resentment against Jefferson and his Virginia regime began to build and New England merchants resorted, as they always did, to smuggling. This provoked a political crisis when Jefferson, repudiating all his States-rights principles, expanded the penalties for smuggling and sent federal agents north to enforce the embargo. Soon the streets of port cities were filled with anti-administration protesters. As for the warring nations of Europe -- they simply ignored the embargo.

Jefferson remained obdurate in the face of protests and the hated embargo continued -- so did protests and open violation of federal law. Finally, on March 1, 1809, three days before Jefferson left office, it was repealed and replaced by a less comprehensive embargo that banned commerce only with Britain and France. That was no more successful than the 1807 law and was subsequently revised by the Madison administration. Nevertheless resentment against the federal government and the Virginians who ran it continued right down to and through the War of 1812. Reconciliation of the discontent sparked by Jefferson's attempt to employ soft power did not take place until 1815 when a wave of national pride swept over the nation in the aftermath of Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans -- but that is another story for another day.

Economic historians have pointed out that Jefferson's embargo had an unintended side effect that was beneficial to the nation. Many New England businessmen, instead of investing their capital in commercial enterprises, created numerous domestic manufacturing enterprises that are now seen as the first wave of the American industrial revolution.