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
17 of 30




THE task that Napoleon made the central point of his policy manifestly imposed the greatest demands on its inventor and his helpers, especially when we take into consideration the administrative powers at the disposal of the governments of the time.


With regard to what was by far the most important point, namely, the exclusion of British and colonial goods, the question of the application of the system at once struck upon a peculiar difficulty, namely, the problem of what to do with the confiscated merchandise. To Napoleon himself, strange as it may seem, this problem was a matter of minor importance, inasmuch as from first to last he adhered to the view taken over from the politicians of the Convention, that all goods were sold on the credit of Englishmen and thus were not yet paid for when they were seized, and that, accordingly, the loss in any case hit the enemy. With a persistence that never wavered he preached to his allies and helpers the doctrines that, 'inasmuch as the (continental) merchants never buy except on credit, it is a fact that no goods are ever paid for,' and that, 'all goods being the property of the English,' their confiscation means 'a backhanded blow for England which is terrific'.*1 On this assumption, moreover, the whole difficulty would pretty soon have been overcome; for after a sufficiently large number of such losses had been inflicted on the English they might reasonably be expected to grow weary of sacrificing their goods and thus abandon the attempt to force them on the Continent. It is true that not even under Napoleon's assumption did it do to allow goods, at least the industrial products of England, to make their way into France itself, where they competed with the French products. But for the industries of the rest of the Continent Napoleon had no such interest, wishing solely to prevent their competition with the continental exports of France; and, lastly, it is manifest that neither of these points could create uneasiness in respect of colonial goods of British origin.


From the very outset this caused an expedient which could not fail to lead the whole system into a wrong track, namely, that the towns and other places where the goods were seized received the right to repurchase them, usually at an extremely high figure. Consequently, the goods were not excluded. On the contrary, the different continental markets were able, to a very large extent, to provide themselves by means of such repurchases (rachats), and the control of illicit imports was thus rendered exceedingly difficult—a result which was also furthered by the great auctions that Napoleon caused to be held for the sale of captured and confiscated, though not repurchased, goods.*2 The only device which might have completely eradicated the difficulty would have been the absolute destruction of the illicit goods in accordance with earlier methods; and for several years it does not appear to have occurred to Napoleon to go so far. But the injury done by the repurchase tactics was not limited to this, but went much deeper, inasmuch as from the very beginning it robbed the policy of its ideal attributes and its stamp of grandeur, as being a means for the emancipation of the Continent. It gave rise to intrigues, which in an incessant crescendo strengthened the notion that the intention of the whole affair was merely to levy blackmail, to find a means of squeezing money out of the continental peoples for the benefit of the Emperor and French funds, as well as of French marshals, generals and soldiers, ministers and consuls. Already in connexion with the events of 1808 an unusually competent observer, Johann Georg Rist, the German-born representative in Hamburg of France's intimate ally, Denmark, writes in his memoirs, compiled in the years 1816 to 1821, that no one among the merchants, peasants or officials, or even among the scholars, believed in any plans for the good of Europe, but only in the desire to line French pockets. It was commonly held that no justice was to be expected, but merely arbitrariness and the basest motives, all marked by high words, threats, and deception. And with regard to the last phase of the system (from 1810 onward) almost exactly the same words fall from Mollien, who was Napoleon's good and faithful servant, though a man of strong and independent judgment. He says that 'this pretended system...deprived of every vestige of political prestige, has only proved itself in the eyes of everybody to be the most pernicious and false of fiscal inventions'.*3 It was precisely fiscalism, the bane of so many systems of commercial policy, which thereby got a footing from the very beginning in the imposing and soaring plan and threw radical difficulties in the way of its execution.


This was all the more the case for the reason that Napoleon's assumption that everything was sold on credit was so far from being correct that it was the very reverse of the truth. Apparently the demand that prevailed on the Continent for British and colonial goods made it possible for them to be sold practically always for cash; consequently it was the continental buyers who were the chief sufferers. And even when that was not the case, one finds the continental buyers, e.g., not only Hamburg merchants, but importers all over Germany and Holland generally—according to the evidence in 1807 of their British creditors themselves—displaying an extraordinary zeal in the regular payment of their debts.*4


Consequently there was little or no likelihood that the British would tire of supplying the Continent with goods. On the contrary, the inner history of the Continental System came to consist essentially in the embittered and uninterrupted struggles against the endless stream of British goods.


This difficulty with which Napoleon was confronted with regard to the very structure of the blockade was further complicated by the difficulty of getting honest and zealous persons to assist him in putting it into execution. It was almost impossible to obtain such assistants among his allies and their organs; and consequently one of the most amply justified views in the historical literature of the present time is the explanation that the incessant extension of the empire along the coast of Europe was due to the Emperor's need of direct control, with a view to the observance of the Continental System. Of the innumerable examples of this we may mention two, one Swedish and one Prussian. In August 1811, when Sweden was nominally at war with Great Britain, Axel Pontus von Rosen, the Governor of Gothenburg, informed the minister of state, von Engeström, that for once in a way he had caused to be confiscated ten oxen intended for Admiral Saumarez's English fleet, which lay off Vinga, and added: 'I entreat that this be put in the papers, so that I, wretched that I am, may for once wear the nimbus of Continental zeal in the annals of Europe. Saumarez was informed beforehand, so that he will not be annoyed.' During the winter of 1811-12 a systematic import of forbidden colonial goods by the state itself went on in Prussia through a special commissioner for the minister of finance, Privy Councillor von Heydebreck; and at the same time Hardenberg, the leading minister, wrote to that very man and requested the strictest inquiry into the smuggling.*5


But the fact that the situation was untenable when the application of the system lay in such hands must by no means be interpreted to mean that the difficulties were overcome so soon as Napoleon was able to set his own administrators to the task. The general weakness of authority in those days, in comparison with the present day, was perhaps best expressed in the lack of will and capacity on the part of subordinate organs to follow out the intentions of the heads of the state, and that, too, even under such an almost superhumanly equipped ruler as Napoleon. The fiscal methods—to use a fine-sounding expression—which Napoleon employed in his own interest were often turned by his subordinates against him, or at least against his policy; and his altogether unabashed endeavour to turn these abuses to his own account never failed to divert the Continental System still further from its task. In these respects the difference is inconsiderable between the various organs which were more or less completely employed for the purposes of the blockade policy, viz., the large detachments of troops along the coast and their naval coadjutors in ports and estuaries, the customs staff and border police, and finally the local administration in the territories belonging to the Empire and the French legation staffs and consuls in vassal states and occupied territories.

Notes for this chapter

Quotations from two letters addressed to his brother Jerome, King of Westphalia, on Jan. 23, 1807, and to the Emperor Alexander of Russia on Oct. 23, 1810. Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, nos. 11,682 and 17,071. In consonance with this the representative of Napoleon in Switzerland, Rouyer, declared in 1810 that the Swiss commercial houses were generally only 'commanditaires et expéditionnaires' of the English. Letter reproduced in de Cérenville, Le système continental, &c., p. 337. See also Schmidt, Le Grand-duché de Berg, p. 374, note 2.
König, Die Sächsische Baumwollenindustrie, &c., pp. 204 et seq., 215-6.
J. G. Rist, Lebenserinnerungen (Poel ed., Gotha, 1880), vol. II, pp. 29-30; Mollien, Mémoires, &c., vol. II, p. 462. Cf. Louis Bonaparte to his brother Jerome, Oct. 15, 1808, in Duboscq, Louis Bonaparte en Hollande, d'après ses lettres (Paris, 1911), no. 185.
Mollien, op. cit., vol. II, p. 461; König, op. cit., pp. 180-1; Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, &c., vol. II, p. 305; Tarle, Kontinental'naja blokada, vol. I, pp. 287, 351, 384; Tarle, Deutsch-französische Wirtschaftsbeziehungen, loc. cit., pp. 679-80, 718.
Von Rosen to von Engeström, Aug. 7, 1811, in Ahnfelt, Ur Svenska hofvets och aristokratiens lif (Stockholm, 1882), vol. V, p. 259; Peez and Dehn, Englands Vorherrschaft. Aus der Zeit der Kontinentalsperre (Leipzig, 1912), p. 258.

Part III, Chapter II

End of Notes

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