The Continental System: An Economic Interpretation

Heckscher, Eli F.
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Harald Westergaard, ed. C. S. Fearenside, trans.
First Pub. Date
Oxford: Clarendon Press
Pub. Date

by Harald Westergaard


THE author of the present inquiry into the Continental System during the beginning of the last century is known as one of the most prominent political economists in Scandinavia and as a thorough investigator of the history of commerce. Among other things he has done very useful work by his suggestive researches concerning the economy of the World War.


When the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace publishes the book, the obvious explanation is that the Continental blockade in many ways throws light on the economic blockade among the belligerent powers involved by the World War.


That the Napoleonic Continental System could by no means have such far-reaching effects as those of the World War already appears from the great difference in dimensions, and from the fact that the separate nations at that time were far more independent of each other economically than they are at the present time with its extraordinary degree of international division of labour. But the author further shows how powerless the governments were at that time compared with those of the present day in the face of attempts at breaking the blockade, and to how slight an extent the measures were supported by the populations themselves. These great changes in the conditions of power and in the general view are highly interesting from a sociological point of view. But even if Napoleon had been in possession of sufficient power his own policy shows to how slight an extent a real international blockade was aimed at by the Continental System.




FOR the aim and character of this short study the reader is referred to the Introduction and the Bibliographical Note. A few words may be added, however, as to the conditions under which it was written.


The book represents a sort of synthesis of earlier studies of the mercantile system and its outgrowths, on the one side, and the result of extensive theoretical and practical work—private, academic, and government—in the field of present-day war economics, on the other. In its original form it was written very rapidly during the winter of 1917-18, under strong pressure of other work, and was presented to my history teacher, Professor Harald Hjärne, on the seventieth anniversary of his birth, at the beginning of May 1918. Probably the atmosphere of a rather strict blockade in a neutral country will be found to pervade it as a more or less natural consequence of the time of its production.


When the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, through its representative for Scandinavia, my esteemed colleague, Professor Harald Westergaard, proposed that I should treat the subject for its series, I overhauled my earlier text, changing its outward arrangement in several respects and making a number of additions, partly based on new materials. As before, however, I was restricted to such information as was to be found in my own country, and consequently I cannot hope to have escaped error altogether, especially as the field is very large and some of my sources not above suspicion. But what I hope is that the leading ideas of the book, that is, the interpretation of the Continental System, will prove substantially correct.


As the book appears in an English translation, it may be well for me to point out that I have not had American readers principally in mind. Had that been the case, the brief outline of American policy with regard to the Continental System (part II, chapter IV) would have been either enlarged or omitted altogether, since it cannot contain, in its present form, much that is unknown to educated American readers.


The British Orders in Council of 1807 have been reproduced in an appendix, as they are far more inaccessible than the Napoleonic decrees, and are, moreover, very often misunder-stood and sometimes even misquoted.


The English text is, in the main, the work of my colleague Mr. C. S. Fearenside, M.A. (Oxford), Junior Lector in English at the University College of Commerce. There can be no question about the desirability of writing a book from the beginning in the language in which it is to appear, since the association of ideas with language, at least in political and social sciences, is far too close to allow a text to pass entirely unscathed through the ordeal of a translation. But in this case too much was already written in Swedish to leave more than one course open to me. Mr. Fearenside has found it the best plan to follow the Swedish original very closely, instead of attempting to recast the sentence structure on English lines. I am very grateful to him, not only for the work of translation, but also for numerous valuable suggestions regarding the outward arrangement of the text.


My wife has been my best helpmate throughout the work, and to the Carnegie Endowment I am deeply indebted for the reading of the proof.

University College of Commerce,
Stockholm, July 4, 1919.



1678 Beginning of Anglo-French commercial war
1713 Anglo-French commercial treaty of Utrecht
1776 Publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations
1780 League of Armed Neutrality
1786 Anglo-French commercial treaty (Eden Treaty)
1788 French industrial crisis
1789 Convocation of French States General
1791 New French protective tariff
1793 (Feb.) Outbreak of Anglo-French war
Captures authorized by Great Britain
  (Mar.) French prohibitive customs law
  (June) British food blockade directed against France
  (Sept.) French Navigation Act
  (Oct.) Truculent French prohibitive measure
  (Nov.) British naval instructions against French colonial trade
1794 (Mar.) Scandinavian League of Armed Neutrality
  (Aug.) Revocation of British food blockade
1796 (July) French enactment against neutral trade
1797 (Feb.) British bank restriction
1798 (Jan.) New British naval blockade (entrepôt principle)
Passage of French 'Nivôse Law'
1799 (Dec.) Repeal of 'Nivôse Law'
1800 (Dec.) New League of Armed Neutrality
1801 (Mar.-Apr.) Battle of the Baltic; collapse of Armed Neutrality
1802 (Mar.) Peace of Amiens
1803 (Apr.) French duties on cotton goods
  (May) Renewal of Anglo-French war
  (June-July) British blockade of Elbe and Weser
1804 (beginning) Confiscation of British goods in Holland
  (Apr.) Blockade of French ports
1805 (May) Restriction of American carrying trade (Essex case)
  (Oct.) Battle of Trafalgar
Publication of James Stephen's War in Disguise
  (Oct.-Dec.) Collapse of Austria; Peace of Pressburg
1806 (Jan.) Death of William Pitt; Ministry of 'All the Talents'
  (Feb.-Apr.) Codification of French prohibitive customs duties
1806 (Apr.) American Non-importation Act
  (May) North Sea blockade instituted by Fox
  (Sept.) Death of Fox
  (Oct.) Collapse of Prussia
  (Nov.) Berlin decree
  (Dec.) Execution of the Continental System in Hamburg
1807 (Jan.) 'First' (Whig) Order in Council
  (Mar.) 'All the Talents' succeeded by Portland Ministry
  (June) Anglo-American affair of the Chesapeake
  (Sept.) Bombardment of Copenhagen; British occupation of Heligoland
  (Nov.) New (Tory) Orders in Council
  (Nov.) First Milan decree
  (Dec.) Second Milan decree
  (Dec.) American Embargo Act
  (end) French occupation of Etruria; Leghorn in French hands
1808 (Apr.) Bayonne decree against America
  (May-June) Spanish insurrection; opening-up of new transmarine markets to Great Britain
  (Sept.) Closing of French-Dutch frontier
1809 (Mar.) American Non-intercourse Act Diminished vigilance along North Sea coast
  (Apr.) New (formally milder) Order in Council
  (Jan.-July) British occupation of French colonies
  (July) French Schönbrunn decree; new customs cordon in western Germany
  (Oct.) Peace of Vienna; Trieste in French hands
1810 (Jan.) French prize decree
  (Mar.) Rambouillet decree against America
  (Mar.-July) Incorporation of Holland with the French Empire
  (May) Freedom of American trade
  (July) French licence decree
  (July-Aug.) Outbreak of grave crisis in Great Britain and France
  (Aug.) Trianon tariff
Fictitious revocation of French Continental decrees
  (Oct.) Fontainebleau decree Great British mercantile fleet in the Baltic
  (Dec.) Incorporation of the North Sea coast with the French Empire
  (Dec.) Rupture between France and Russia (new Russian tariff)
Rest of French colonial empire lost
1811 (Mar.) American Non-importation Act
Continuation of crisis in Great Britain and France
1812 (Feb.) Abatement of British crisis
  (June) Revocation of British Orders in Council as against America
British-American war
  (June-Nov.) Napoleon's Russian campaign
1813 (Jan.) Insurrections in Hamburg and Grand Duchy of Berg
Wars of Liberation
1814 (Apr.) Abdication of Napoleon
Revocation of Continental decrees



HISTORY has rightly been called of old magistra vitae, which function is incompatible with that of ancilla fidei or even ancilla pietatis. The fact is that historical research can offer us knowledge only by bringing forward its conclusions quite irrespective of their value as a support for any practical aims, howsoever lofty. The endeavours which have been going on all over the world in recent years to transform scientific work into a species of propaganda with a great show of learning, are related not only to the conditions of the moment, but also to the deeper spiritual influences which themselves have done much to bring those conditions about. They are in this way easy to explain; but their tendency to endanger and to create indifference for true research is not lessened thereby.


In the present inquiry I have pursued, to the best of my humble ability, a purely scientific aim, in the meaning of the term that has just been indicated. I have not sought to take sides in the struggles that are barely finished, but only to make use of the experiences of former times, in combination with the experiences of to-day, in order thereby to make room for a better understanding of the entire course of developments. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to imagine a task within the sphere of economic history which is more worth while taking up just now than a consideration of the last great commercial blockade. As will appear from the following account, both the resemblances and the differences of the Napoleonic wars with respect to the recent World War are instructive in the highest degree. But it can scarcely be expected that the matter will be treated in a purely objective manner, that is to say, exclusively on the basis of its own inherent conditions, by those who, metaphorically speaking, have been in the midst of the conflict; for the possibilities of utilizing the lessons of the past as a spear to cast at the joints of the enemy with the laudable purpose of the warrior to wound and kill—to adapt the words of Victor Rydberg—are here, quite naturally, legion.


An even approximately exhaustive treatment of the Continental System, however, lies beyond what has here been attempted. Neither time nor strength was available for so much. It was intended that the following survey should be, first and foremost, economic in character; and the aim of objective treatment was thereby considerably simplified. For economy, as is well known, simply means housekeeping—the directing of outward means to a given end. The moral content of the means in themselves, and still more the expediency of the end in itself, fall outside the confines of economic research. All examination of the one or of the other will therefore be avoided. Instead of this, we will have before us two objects: first, the purely historical one of determining how the means and the end came into being; secondly, the economic one of inquiring into the suitability of the means for their task and the effects of the policy in general.


More clearly stated, there are three principal questions to be examined:

1. In what economic ideas did the Continental System originate?
2. What was its actual economic bearing?
3. In what manner did it correspond to its aim?


The first of these three questions is very richly illustrated, from a purely external point of view, in the literature already existing on the Continental System; for the third there is likewise abundant, though not completely worked-up, material; the second, however, seems to have suffered from the fact that no economist, so far as is known, has yet subjected it to scientific treatment. On all three questions, and especially on the last two, a clearer light is thrown by comparison with the recent blockade.


A French student of Napoleonic times, M. Marcel Dunan, has declared in an engrossing and very subjectively written bibliography of the Continental System (1913), that the time has not yet come for general surveys of this gigantic undertaking, because, according to his view, we do not yet know either its causes, its roots, its applications, or its effects. Absolute certainty, however, is not given to man; and even though it is undoubtedly true that many years of research must elapse before positive judgment can be passed on certain important points—as will, indeed, appear from what follows—the agreement in the results of the different investigations is so surprisingly great that even now it seems possible to say a great deal without much danger of error. Otherwise, one may wait in vain for investigations on all the necessary points, if no efforts have been made beforehand to summarize the conclusions already reached.


In a supplement to this exposition the most important materials for a more detailed study of the Continental System have been brought together for the benefit of those who may feel impelled to push deeper into this fertile and interesting field of inquiry.

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