Versatility in crisis: The merchants of the New London Customs District respond to the embargo of 1807--1809

Date of Completion

January 2001


History, United States|Economics, History




Terms such as imaginative, daring, and versatile have long been applied to those who owned and operated the nation's merchant fleet during the turbulent years before 1812. A singular challenge to this entrepreneurial versatility attended the Jeffersonian embargo of 1807–1809. ^ Through thick description, this paper examines how the merchants of the New London Customs District organized and managed the cargoes purchased and sold (commerce), and the vessels used (navigation) during the years before, during, and after the embargo. Trade routes and cargoes, both foreign and domestic, along with the vessel types, and the ways their ownership and management were organized are closely examined to determine whether the merchants of southeastern Connecticut evinced versatility in the face of crisis. ^ The study determines that the region's merchants demonstrated versatility as they sought alternative strategies for their commerce, and to a lesser extent, for their navigation. These alternatives included extra-legal activities, a reduction in the size of the foreign fleet, and the re-documentation of foreign trading vessels into domestic carriage. Most importantly, they sought new domestic trading partners, and took advantage of the political power of Jedidiah Huntington, Custom Collector. Huntington, an influential member of the Standing Order, allowed scores of embargoed vessels to depart for foreign ports under the guise of “special permission.” Merchant versatility was also exhibited through the establishment of new foreign trade routes during the months following the embargo. ^ Long established modes of sharing vessel ownership proved to be resistant to modification, however. Rather, established patterns of owner relations maintained throughout the embargo crisis, in spite of the fact that numerous entrepreneurs were driven to the brink of bankruptcy. In sum, the merchant community of the New London Customs District evinced versatility in their commerce, limited adaptation to crisis in the management of their navigation, and little change in their relations with other owners even as some of their number were forced from the field. ^