Foreign Commerce: Jefferson’s Embargo.

“Jefferson’s Em- bargo” of 1807–1808, which cut all trade with Europe, was attacked on the ground that the power to regulate commerce was the power to preserve it, not the power to destroy it. This argument was rejected by Judge Davis of the United States District Court for Massachusetts in the following words: “A national sovereignty is created [by the Constitution]. Not an unlimited sovereignty, but a sovereignty, as to the objects surrendered and specified, limited only by the qualification and restrictions, expressed in the Constitution. Commerce is one of those objects. The care, protection, management and control, of this great national concern, is, in my opinion, vested by the Constitution, in the Congress of the United States; and their power is sovereign, relative to commercial intercourse, qualified by the limitations and restrictions, expressed in that instrument, and by the treaty making power of the President and Senate. . . . Power to regulate, it is said, cannot be understood to give a power to annihilate. To this it may be replied, that the acts under consideration, though of very ample extent, do not operate as a prohibition of all foreign commerce. It will be admitted that partial prohibitions are authorized by the expression; and how shall the degree, or extent, of the prohibition be adjusted, but by the discretion of the National Government, to whom the subject appears to be committed? . . . The term does not necessarily include shipping or navigation; much less does it include the fisheries. Yet it never has contended, that they are not the proper objects of national regulation; and several acts of Congress have been made respecting them. . . . [Furthermore] if it be admitted that national regulations relative to commerce, may apply it as an instrument, and are not necessarily confined to its direct aid and advancement, the sphere of legislative discretion is, of course, more widely extended; and, in time of war, or of great impending peril, it must take a still more expanded range.”

“Congress has power to declare war. It, of course, has power to prepare for war; and the time, the manner, and the measure, in the application of constitutional means, seem to be left to its wisdom and discretion. . . . Under the Confederation, . . . we find an express reservation to the State legislatures of the power to pass prohibitory commercial laws, and, as respects exportations, without any limitations. Some of them exercised this power. . . . Unless Congress, by the Constitution, possess the power in question, it still exists in the State legislatures—but this has never been claimed or pretended, since the adoption of the Federal Constitution; and the exercise of such a power by the States, would be manifestly inconsistent with the power, vested by the people in Congress, ‘to regulate commerce.’ Hence I infer, that the power, reserved to the States by the articles of Confederation, is surrendered to Congress, by the Constitution; unless we suppose, that, by some strange process, it has been merged or extinguished, and now exists no where.”851


United States v. The William, 28 Fed. Cas. 614, 620–623 (No. 16,700) (D. Mass. 1808). See also Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 191 (1824); United States v. Marigold, 50 U.S. (9 How.) 560 (1850). [Back to text]