In the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson, who was elected to two consecutive terms as President of the United States, proved to be a constant thorn in the side of Connecticut’s political leaders. Virtually all the members of Connecticut’s political “Standing Order” were staunch Federalists who vehemently disagreed with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican political agenda and foreign policy.
These disagreements came to a head in 1807, when Jefferson, halfway into his second term, signed the Embargo Act of 1807 into law. Intended as a punitive measure toward the warring countries of Europe who were constantly harassing American sailors at sea, the embargo aimed to deny them access to sought-after American goods by effectively closing American ports to all international trade. The Embargo Act wreaked havoc on Connecticut and other New England states, whose economies were heavily dependent on trade. Farmers reported widespread spoilage of crops normally slated for export, whereas merchants watched helplessly as their ships sat idle, prohibited to leave port.
Connecticans resisted the Embargo Act of 1807 — commonly known as “Jefferson’s Embargo” — in a number of ways. Local newspapers railed against the unpopular act, and throughout the state, smuggling was tacitly encouraged. New London’s customs collector doled out “special permission” for several merchant ships to sail in out of New London harbor in open defiance of federal law. But the most stunning act of defiance occurred on February 23, 1809, when Connecticut’s governor, Jonathan Trumbull Jr., declared the embargo “unconstitutional” before a special session of the General Assembly, and stated he would refuse to enforce it. Trumbull encouraged Connecticut’s lawmakers and citizenry to openly defy the federal embargo and formally called upon other New England states to do the same, in order “to interpose their protective shield between the rights and liberties of the people and the assumed powers of the [Federal] Government.” By refusing to enforce the embargo and citing the welfare of Connecticut citizens as justification, Connecticut became the first state to use a claim of states’ rights to refuse to implement a federal law.
While a minority of Republican lawmakers denounced Trumbull’s actions as akin to treason, the Governor’s words fell on mostly sympathetic ears. By that point in time, with the embargo in place for over a year, many other Americans — both inside and outside of New England — were protesting and openly flaunting the embargo as well. One month after Governor Trumbull’s declaration, the unpopular Embargo Act was repealed, having accomplished little beyond throwing the United States’ domestic economy into turmoil. A bold and ground-breaking defiance of federal law — perhaps one of Connecticut’s most controversial “firsts” — took place today in Connecticut history.
Nancy Finlay, “Connecticut and the Embargo Act of 1807,” connecticuthistory.org
Walter W. Woodward, “The War of 1812: The War Connecticut Hated,” Connecticut Explored