Case study - The Embargo Act of 1807 and 19C miniature portrait cases

A Case Study of a Case Study
Please forgive the pun, but I could not resist it! The 1807 Embargo Act probably sounds an unlikely topic for a study or discussion about miniature portrait cases, but it is hoped the following essay will demonstrate the connection.

Readers might like to imagine themselves as an American importer of miniature portrait cases and other luxuries from Britain, and consider how they might have reacted to the events of 1806-1815.

Early Cases
John Ramage is one early American miniature painter recorded as having imported cases from Britain to house the miniature portraits he painted. An example in this Artists & Ancestors collection, of a case he imported to New York from Britain in the late 18C appears here.

Other miniature painters such as Walter Robertson, entering the United States in the late 18C and first years of the 19C would have brought ivory blanks, paints, glasses, and cases with them. There were also some local case-makers, who had brought their case making skills with them to America, but probably needed some imported components, such as glasses.

Between 1780 and 1805, some cases used in America are so similar to those used in Britain, to indicate there must have been many cases imported from Britain by wholesale art suppliers. However, from around 1806 there is a much greater divergence of case styles between America and Britain and it is interesting to speculate on the reasons for this.

The Trade Wars
It seems the "trade wars" of the early 19C were the prime cause.

The stakes in the trade wars were substantially raised on 21 November 1806 when Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree banning British vessels from "Fortress Europe".

In retaliation for this British ships maintained a blockade of all European ports controlled by the French.

American merchant ships were caught in the middle of this when Britain used the blockade to prevent supplies from reaching Napoleon.

The effect was that American merchants, who as neutrals had for years effectively been assisting Napoleon by carrying out a lucrative carrying trade between French colonies and France itself, now found themselves in a position whereby if they continued to try to do so, then no matter what they did they would be seized by either the British or the French.

As a result, the French seized around 500 American ships and crews, and the British seized around 1000 American ships and crews.

The Non-Importation Act
However, even seven months before the Berlin Decree, the Non-Importation Act, had been passed by the United States Congress on April 18, 1806.

This act forbade the importation of certain British goods in an attempt to coerce Great Britain to suspend its impressment of American sailors and to safeguard American sovereignty and neutrality on the high seas.

This was the first attempt of President Thomas Jefferson's administration to respond economically, instead of militarily, to the British actions.

The background was that non-importation agreements had been believed to have been beneficial in the struggle of the colonies with England at the time of the Revolution.

It seemed to Jefferson that it was not unreasonable to suppose that a well-sustained refusal to traffic in English goods, would put a stop to the expected damage from a the ruling by British admiralty courts. This ruing threatened to cut off the lucrative American trading involvement in commerce between Europe and the West Indies.

President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, leaders of the Democratic-Republican party, pushed for the measure despite objections from the Federalist Party.

With the Non-Importation Act as his weapon, the Jefferson was therefore confident that he could force a settlement of all outstanding differences with Britain. The American commissioners sent to Britain were instructed to insist upon three demands in the proposed treaty:
1. Restoration of trade with enemies' colonies.
2. Indemnity for captures made since the Essex decision.
3. Express repudiation of the right of impressment.

In return for these concessions, the commissioners might hold out the possible repeal of the Non-Importation Act! However, only confirmed optimists could believe that the mistress of the seas, flushed with the 1805 victory of Trafalgar, would consent to yield these points for so slight a compensation.

From the British point of View, what was at stake was nothing less than the commercial supremacy of Great Britain. The astounding growth of Napoleon's empire was a standing menace to British trade.

The overthrow of Prussia in the fall of 1806 left Napoleon in control of Central Europe and in a position to invade England. In November 1806, a fortnight after the battle of Jena, Napoleon entered Berlin and there issued the famous decree which was his answer to the British blockade of the French channel ports.

Accordingly, the British Government was prepared to ignore the United States and deal Napoleon blow for blow. An order-in-council of January 7, 1807, asserted the right of retaliation and declared that; "No vessel shall be permitted to trade from one port to another, both which ports shall belong to, or be in possession of France or her allies."

Thus under those circumstances Britain was unwilling to agree to any proposal whereby American ships could continue to assist Napoleon by transporting his supplies.

(The attempts to preserve American neutrality at this time, seem to have interesting parallels with similar attempts in pre-1917 World War I and in pre-1941 World War II. It is therefore interesting to speculate what might have happened to the United States and its place in World History, if Napoleon had not been defeated at Waterloo in 1815.)

The Embargo Act
The Non-Importation Act was then suspended, but quickly replaced when the US Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, which imposed more trade restrictions with Britain, as well as with France.

Unlike the previous Non-Importation Act, this new Embargo Act was aimed at American shippers and their vessels. While the intentions of the act may have been noble, in reality, the Embargo Act of 1807 meant to hurt the British and the French ended in failure.

The cartoon shows trade represented as a snake caught between the two laws, saying; "What's the matter tail? - I can't get out".

The new law required, among other things, that:
1. American vessels were prohibited from landing in any foreign port unless specifically authorized by the president himself, who, at the time, was Jefferson.
2. Trading vessels were now required to post a bond of guarantee equal to the value of both the ship and its cargo, in order to insure compliance with the law.

Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin was against the entire notion, foreseeing (correctly, as it turned out) the nightmare of trying to enforce such a policy, not to mention the public's reaction.

The worst feature of the experiment was its ineffectiveness, which was also recognised in Britain.

When the American Pinkney approached Canning with the proposal of a quid pro quo — the United States to rescind the embargo, if England were to revoke her orders-in-council — he was told with biting sarcasm by Canning that;
"If it were possible to make any sacrifice for the repeal of the embargo without appearing to deprecate it as a measure of hostility, he would gladly have facilitated its removal as a measure of inconvenient restriction upon the American people."

For more background, see Grizzard: Construction of UVA: 1996: Jefferson and His Colleagues ...

The Economic Impact
Jefferson's attempt at "peaceful coercion" resulted in economic disaster for American merchants. Northern shipping interests declared the act disastrous, and southern planters suffered substantial losses. Previously, such citizens were valued clients for miniature painters, but do doubt having miniatures painted seemed unimportant in the face of such crippling losses.

As an indication of the impact of the Act, it is estimated in "Dictionary of American History", by By Michael Martin, Leonard Gelber, Leo Lieberman, on page 200, that United States exports fell from $108,000,000 in 1807, to $22,000,000 in 1808, while imports declined from $138,000,000 to $57,000,000 in the same period.

The authors also estimated that during the embargo 55,000 sailors and 100,000 laborers were thown out of work in the United States. Customs revenues fell from $16m to virtually nothing.

Merchants, sea captains, and sailors were also dismayed to find themselves without income and to see their ships rotting at the wharves.

It is hard to read the speech bubbles of this Cruikshank cartoon of 1808, but three speech bubbles appear to read; "My family is starving", "My warehouses are full", and "The goods are spoiling". (Double click on the image to see it better.)

Napoleon is hiding behind the chair and his speech bubble says to Jefferson; "You shall be King hereafter".

Part of Jefferson's bubble comments re the English; "...if we continue the Experiment for fifteen or twenty years, we may begin them to feel the good effects..."

The cartoon is titled; "The Happy Effects of that Grand System of Shutting Ports Against the English!!"

The voting on the Embargo was far from unanimous, and this map shows how the various states voted.

On January 8, 1808, within weeks of the first embargo act being law, a second one was passed. The prohibition was extended to inland waters and land commerce to halt the skyrocketing trade with Canada which had been seen as a way to avoid the embargo.

A loophole had been discovered in the first act, namely that coasting vessels, and fishing and whaling boats had not been required to post bonds guaranteeing that they would not sail for foreign ports.

The new embargo act now required that all U.S. ships post a bond of twice the value of the ship and cargo. Failure to do so would:
1. Lead to the forfeiture of said ship and cargo
2. Result in "permanent and absolute" refusal in permission to use credit in regard to custom duties
3. Render the oath of the ship's owner and/or captain inadmissible before any customs officer.

With their harbors for the most part unusable in the winter anyway, New England and the north ports of the mid-Atlantic states, paid little notice to the earlier embargo acts.

That was to change with the spring, and the passing of yet another embargo act.

While protests up and down the American seaboard sprang to life, merchants and shippers simply ignored the laws. On the Canadian border, especially in the area of upstate New York and Vermont, the embargo laws were openly flouted, but things began to bite in 1808.

With the coming of the spring thaw in 1808, the effects of the previous acts were immediately felt throughout the coastal states; none more so than in New England with economic downturn devolving into a depression, and with spiralling unemployment.

These graphs from "War and welfare: Britain, France, and the United States 1807–14" a paper by Kevin H. O’Rourke, OUP 2007, show that the United States was far more adversely impacted by the trade embargoes, than were Britain or France. Britain was little affected, but even Napoleon found that he lost more than he gained from his Berlin Decree of 1806. (The graphs also show the later even greater adverse impact of "Mr Madison's War" of 1812-1814 on American trade.)

That artists were affected by reduced business is recorded at Early American Paintings where there is the comment: "(Thomas) Sully left New York for Philadelphia in 1808 because the Embargo Act of December 1807, which prohibited United States trade with other countries, greatly hurt the domestic economy and affected even his portrait commissions."

The Continuing Saga
By March 1808, an increasingly frustrated Jefferson was resolved to enforce the embargo to the letter. Thus on March 12, 1808, Congress passed, and Jefferson signed into law, still another embargo act. This one:

1. Prohibited, for the first time, the export of any goods, either by land or by sea.
2. Subjected violators to a fine of $10,000, plus forfeiture of goods, for each offense.
3. Granted the President broad discretionary authority to enforce, deny, or grant exceptions to the embargo.
4. Authorized port authorities to seize cargoes without a warrant, and/or to bring to trial any shipper or merchant who was thought to have merely contemplated violating the embargo.

Still the embargo was ignored, violated, and flouted; still the protests continued and continued to grow; and so it was that the Jefferson administration requested and Congress rendered yet another embargo act. On April 25, 1808, Congress passed a proposal that once the wars of Europe were over and the President declared the country sufficiently safe, he would have the power to revoke the act. On March 1, 1809, Jefferson did just that.

However, that was not the end of the matter. The Embargo Act was repealed three days before Jefferson left office, being replaced by the Non-Intercourse Act on March 1, 1809, which lifted all embargoes except for those on Britain and France.

The Non-Intercourse Act also required the forfeiting of British and French ships; "And if any ship or vessel sailing under the flag of Great Britain or France, ... shall arrive either with or without a cargo, within the limits of the United States or of the territories thereof, such ship or vessel, together with the cargo, if any, which may be found on board, shall be forfeited, and may he seized and condemned in any court of the United States or the territories thereof, having competent jurisdiction.

The move was very unpopular and showing here is a memorial from the citizens of the state of Delaware to the U.S. Congress dated February 2, 1809. It expresses their opposition to the embargo act of 1807 banning trade with Britain and France, and requests that it be repealed.

The Non-Intercourse Act was just as ineffective as the Embargo Act itself and was replaced again the following year with Macon's Bill Number 2, lifting the remaining embargoes.

The Macon Bill stated that if either Britain or France agreed to observe the neutrality of the United States, the US would resume trading with that country and continue the embargo on the other.

The French soon agreed to American demands. However, their agreement was more of desperation, as the French Navy had been crushed by Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and the French were no longer a dominant naval force in the Atlantic.

The entire series of American trade embargo laws was ridiculed in the press as Dambargo, Mob-Rage, Go-bar-'em or O-grab-me (embargo spelled backward).

There was even this cartoon ridiculing the Act as a snapping turtle, dubbed Ograbme, grabbing at American shipping.

In Rhode Island, as an example, the embargo devastated shipping-related industries, wrecked existing markets, and caused an increase in opposition to the Democratic-Republican Party.

Smuggling was widely endorsed by the public, which viewed the embargo as a violation of their rights. Public outcry continued, helping the Federalists regain control of the state government in 1808-09.

Impact on Seamen and Others
During all this the British retaliated to the embargo by continuing to seize American ships, to prevent them supplying Napoleon. Between 1803-1812 British captains pressed over 10,000 American citizens to man the now British owned ships.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems probable that many of the American crews so affected were not too concerned about what flag flew at the masthead and readily accepted the change of owner. At least they still had paid work, unlike their 55,000 compatriot American seamen put out of work by Jefferson and the embargo. In fact many crews probably welcomed the prospect of continuing employment under a British flag, rather than returning to an American port and the ship being laid up for lack of cargoes.

Obviously, the erstwhile American ship owners who lobbied the "War Hawks" would have had a different perspective and the owners influence later prevailed with the 1812 declaration of war on Britain.

Despite its unpopular nature, the Embargo Act did have some limited, unintended benefits.

It drove capital and labor into New England textile and other manufacturing industries, lessening America's reliance on the British.

Also, iron furnaces sprang up immediately in Western Pennsylvania to supply the needs of the pioneers and cash-in on the high prices one could charge for this metal product.

"Mr Madison's War"
However, the political backlash of the embargoes led to the "War Hawks" being elected to the 1810 Congress.

The "War Hawks", including Henry Clay and John C Calhoun, increased pressure on President Madison.

It was said at his inauguration, James Madison, a small, wizened man, appeared old and worn.

The "War Hawks" pressure on him was to such an extent that on June 1, 1812 Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war.

It was quickly passed despite the Federalist's opposition, and on June 18, 1812 Congress declared "Mr. Madison's War" on Britain.

The outbreak of war brought forth cartoons vilifying the British such as this cartoon titled; "A Scene on the Frontiers as practised by the Humane British and their Worthy Allies".

There were victories for both sides as shown in this cartoon of 1813 titled; "A boxing match, or another bloody nose for John Bull".

There had been an expectation that Britain would quickly capitulate, as it was still at war with Napoleon and it was expected it would not want to fight major wars on two fronts.

However this was not the case and Washington was burned in 1814.

The parties then sought peace, which was agreed at the Treat of Ghent on December 24, 1814. Napoleon was later defeated by the British in June 1815, world peace returned, and from mid 1815 trade could return to normal.

The effect of all this was that, despite much smuggling, trade between the United States on one side of the Atlantic and Britain/France on the other side of the Atlantic had been severely disrupted for the ten years 1806-1815.

Miniature Portrait Cases
No doubt the goods which were successfully smuggled during the ten years between 1806-1815 were items such as liquor and luxuries, but it seems doubtful that components for miniature portrait cases were very high on the list!

Especially when so many shipowners, merchants, and plantation owners, often the customers for miniature painters, were facing severe financial losses from the embargo and the resultant economic depression.

Although it is hard to be positive of the exact year that undated miniatures were painted, in the United States there do seem to be noticeably fewer examples of miniatures painted between 1806 and 1815, no doubt reflecting the prevailing economic conditions.

By around 1815, in Britain the fashion for wearing oval miniature portraits had largely declined and there had been a move to rectangular cabinet miniatures houses in folding red leather cases, with a hinged lid. Thus in Britain there were few oval miniatures after this period and those that were made tended not to have hair-work on the reverse.

In the United States, there was a little more delayed move towards rectangular cabinet miniatures in red leather cases, but still a demand for oval miniatures.

Hence as a result of the trade embargoes, from around 1805 onwards there are indications of a separate American style of case developing, with British oval case types rarely being used in America after that date.

The image here shows the rear of two American miniatures and two British miniatures from around 1805-1810. The British ones are more ornate and have blue Bristol glass inserts, whereas the American ones are simpler with small clear glass inserts on the rear.

Also showing is the front view of the American cases. It is a little hard to see in the images, but both miniatures are held in place by beaded bezels which surround the front glass.

Unlike British miniatures of around 1800, which had a large glass on the rear, the American cases from around 1805 normally have a small rear glass, set into a solid metal background.

They also tend to open from the front, by easing out the bezel, whereas British cases tend to open from the rear, or be held together with tiny pins through the sides.

This is not to say there is a 100% clear division between the two styles, but a general tendency for the styles to part company from around 1805.

Impact on Artists
In an article by Marcia Goldberg, titled "Textured Panels in 19C American Painting" she commented: "At first an engraver and painter of miniatures, John Wesley Jarvis began concentrating on portrait painting around 1804. His response to fluctuations in foreign trade would seem to be more direct than Waldo's, as wood panels are prevalent in his works from 1809 to 1815 but are rare after the war."

Also: "Certainly, artists were affected by the country's financial health. Thomas Sully (1783–1872), commenting on the few entries he had made in his register of paintings (unpublished; in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania) for the year 1807, blamed the embargo for dampening expectations in New York. He returned to Philadelphia and offered to do 30 portraits at reduced prices. William Dunlap (1766–1839) reported in his diary that John Wesley Jarvis was advertising in late 1819 his “lower-priced wares to make an appeal to shrunken pocketbooks” (Dunlap 1965). About the same time, Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) in Charleston, South Carolina, was reducing his fees and his standard of living."

And "Use of wood supports by these artists might be related to the country's economic cycles as well as to fluctuations in foreign trade. There was a depression in 1808–09 while the embargo was in effect. A major economic downturn occurred after the war in 1815–21, overlapping the banking crisis and business failures of 1819–22. Various tariffs of the 1820s may have indirectly affected the importation of canvas. Another major depression covered the years 1837–43." See JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 33 to 42)

These artists were all miniature painters and the lack of of ivory for bases and of cases, together with adverse economic conditions, were probably reasons for these artist to move to large portraits (More for your money, Sir!!) rather than persevering with miniature portraits.

Judging by contemporary prices, miniature casework was often as expensive as the miniature itself and hence cased miniatures would have quickly been regarded as a very expensive luxury.

As a result of all these factors, fewer miniatures were painted during the embargo period.

Embargo Casework
Another apparent effect of the embargoes was that case-work for miniatures painted in America between 1805 and 1815 sometimes showed the dearth of the correct materials.

Showing here are two "exploded" cases of around 1810-1815.

One is by Joseph Wood which has been housed in an oval red leather case, of sufficient depth to show it was originally intended to hold a miniature portrait already housed in an oval gold case. The depth has been minimised by parallel wooden struts hidden behind the backing card (backing card not showing) and some cotton padding. As the ivory is too small for this case, a brass bezel has been made to fit.

Such a case would not have had a glass or brass bezel already made to fit and so they must have been specially made to fit this case. Possibly the bezel was made by Joseph Wood himself, as he had trained as a silversmith.

The glass although convex, is very thin and has a very wavy surface, the sign of an inexperienced glass blower. This is then a further suggestion that the case was assembled locally in New York from available parts, rather than being imported as a complete unit.

The second miniature is by Nathaniel Rogers. In this instance the ivory just fits inside the frame, but the ivory has not been trimmed to the area of the painting, as would be the normal practice when housing a miniature in a proper oval gold case. This again implies cases of the correct size were not available. This one being a "make-do"case with a card bezel. The rear of the case is just a piece of cardboard.

While it is tempting to conclude these two miniatures have been rehoused, I doubt that is the case, as they had been owned by the same family for 200 years until recently acquired for this collection.

However, one other much less likely possibility is that the sitters asked for cheaper cases, as they felt they could not afford proper cases, due to their personal financial losses associated with the embargo. I feel this is an unlikely scenario.

Here are front and rear views of another miniature by Joseph Wood dating to around 1810, where the apparently original case gives the appearance of having been made out of scraps. The rear gold rim shows a join at 2 o'clock and the rear has been made from a flat piece of blue glass.

This seems to further support the concept of the embargo causing difficulties in framing miniature portraits.

If these arguments are accepted, they lead to a very relevant question. Should such miniatures:
1. Be retained in their original "make-do" cases?
2. Be rehoused in more usual period cases of similar date?
3. Be housed in new cases of 1810 design?

My personal opinion is firmly in favor of 1. I think the original "make-do" cases are an integral part of the history of the miniature.

The use of whatever scrap materials was available to the case maker is akin to the patina on old furniture, that furniture collectors are so keen to retain and preserve.

Having researched the subject in this way, I now feel I have other examples of American miniature portraits of this date where the casework shows the adverse impact of the Embargo Act.

This example dates from around 1810-1815. The square ivory blank has the corners cut off so that it will fit inside this French ebonised frame. However even then, the glass had to have a black border painted all the way round, to prevent the edge of the ivory showing from the front.

The ivory shape and the painted black border are hence two signs that the artist did not have a suitable frame to match the shape of the ivory. This situation is unlikely to have occurred in France as most French miniatures are on round ivory bases of a standard size. Thus the artist more likely came across a French frame imported into America that had been unused as a round shape was unfashionable in America. The miniature is inscribed: "William Sayer by Doyle" but to date, that attribution has not been confirmed.

As inferred by the above comments, the impact of the Embargo Act led to a proliferation of cases and frames to try and bridge the gap in availability of frames from Britain and Europe.

Here are some more examples housing American miniature portraits. The two on the left now have missing parts, due to the untrained case makers attempting to satisfy demand, but lacking the experience of making precision cases which would remain together. The middle one is unusual in having an ivory insert, which was available to add the initials of the sitter if desired.

The lower example shows a standard French case, with a brass bezel (a bit hard to see), together with an extra low-carat gold fillet or bezel which was included to better mount the miniature portrait, as it was intended for a different sized frame. The sitter for this portrait is identified and it was painted shortly before her March 1816 wedding in Philadelphia, so shows that there were still problems in obtaining suitable cases in 1816.

Many of the cases from 1807-1815 would have been unacceptable to British and European customers of the day, but in America there was no alternative. This continued, but gradually there became signs of repeat foliate type cases provided after 1820 by suppliers who had worked out out to make more of a precision product. Even so, many American cases from after 1820 up to c1850 now have missing rear apertures.

The problems with these metal cases were another reason for the switch to housing rectangular miniatures in leather cases, which themselves were later used for daguerreotypes.

Value of Embargo Act Items
Such "make-do" cases resulting from the Embargo Act, may even increase the market value of the miniatures.

While not exactly comparable, Cowans Auctions in 2005 sold for $24,150: "A miniature copper tea kettle with Embargo Act decoration. Dovetailed construction with a gooseneck spout, a swivel handle, and a brass finial. The entire surface is covered in engraved decoration, including vines and leaves, oak leaves, a dove, a pointing finger, and Masonic symbols. Encircling the lid is Jefferson and the Embargo. On one side is engraved "Mind your business" and on the other is "Prudence is the best Remedy for hard times"."

Several views of the kettle are shown here. It is only 2.75 inches high, so the value was very high for such a small item.

From an August 2008 Press Release it seems the kettle was later onsold by the purchaser to the Smithsonian, no doubt with an additional profit margin!

Without the Embargo Act connection this miniature kettle might have sold for only $100.

The Development of American Casework
One unfortunate side effect arising from the early lack of American case making skills, is that the firm fitting of component parts together, especially the rear glass, was not given the attention it needed.

Hence many American miniatures from 1805-1840 are missing the rear glass and its beaded bezel.

Although American and British frame types do seem to diverge after 1805, even after 1815 there are occasional 19C examples of miniature cases in both America or Britain which can be hard to categorise as one country or the other.

This is probably from the influence of case-makers moving between countries, or of clients requesting a case similar to one acquired by a relative in another country.

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