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
10 of 30



THE Continental System originated, therefore, on the one side, in a blockade that followed the general lines of mercantilist trade policy, especially on the part of France, and, on the other side, in a maritime blockade dominated by the same ideas which proceeded from Great Britain but was imitated in still more intensified forms by France, where, owing to the British mastery of the seas, it acquired the character of a self-blockade. To complete the antecedent conditions of the Continental System, consequently, there is only one feature lacking; but it is the feature which has given the policy itself its name, that is, the combination of the European countries to the exclusion of Great Britain, which, supposing that the same conditions held good as before, means a common self-blockade of the Continent as against Great Britain.


This feature did not become significant until the time of Napoleon, for until then the external means of exercising power, as well as the great political personality it demanded, were still lacking; but recent Napoleonic research has taken great pains to demonstrate that it was significant even during the preceding period. From the beginning of history the community of nations has always looked upon commercial countries with a certain jealousy and suspicion; and in this respect, as has already been said,*33 perfide Albion inherited the feeling which had once been fostered against its rival, the United Netherlands. This feeling was further intensified by the unpalatable experiences of both enemies and neutrals during the incessant wars, on account of Great Britain's ruthlessly applied methods of naval warfare. There is nothing surprising, therefore, in the fact that plans were formed for the exclusion of Great Britain. What is remarkable, on the contrary, is the fact that nobody, so far as is known, has yet succeeded in showing the existence of any such plans other than those emanating directly or indirectly from French sources. Examples of this kind have a great interest of their own; but they are too patent to call for any detailed investigation.


As early as 1747 we know that proposals were brought forward in the French Bureau de Commerce to unite France, the Hanse Towns, Prussia, and the Scandinavian powers for the purpose of crushing the maritime power of Great Britain—probably a mere incident in the long-standing Anglo-French duel.*34 But it was not until after and in consequence of the outbreak of war between Great Britain and France in 1793 that this tendency acquired any lasting significance. The attitude took one or another of two forms, according to circumstances: either all the continental countries were regarded as commercially dependent on England, and therefore as necessary objectives in the military and economic war waged by the French republic against its foremost enemy; or else, contrariwise, they all had the same interest in crushing the power of England and were thus the natural allies of France.


The attitude appears in the first of these two forms in a great speech which the Girondist naval officer, Kersaint, delivered in the Convention on January 1, 1793—that is to say, before the outbreak of war—and in which he exhorted his countrymen, with the usual revolutionary eloquence, to face the struggle with the whole world. In his opinion, France alone had her own industry and wealth, while Spain, Portugal, Holland, and the Italian republics worked largely with British capital and British goods. The New World and Asia, he said, were likewise economically dependent on Great Britain; nay, even the trade of Denmark (i.e., Norway), Sweden, and Russia in naval stores was made possible by the co-operation of British capitalists. 'One cannot find on the face of the globe,' he declared, 'any lucrative branch of trade which has not been exploited to the profit of that essentially shop-keeping people.' In consequence of this, he argued, the injuries inflicted on the states of the Continent fell finally on Great Britain, for whose benefit that economic life was carried on, a view which Napoleon was afterwards destined to push to the extreme. Asia, Portugal, and Spain were regarded by Kersaint as the most important markets for British industry, and they were to be closed to Great Britain by being opened to the rest of the world; Lisbon and Brazil were to be assailed; support was to be given to the old adversary of the British in India, Tippoo Sahib, &c.*35


Thus Kersaint not only passed over the United States, the undiminished importance of which for British trade does not appear to have been fully recognized in France, but also disregarded Germany and the European mainland proper, as distinguished from the coastal and peninsular fringes referred to above. As a rule, however, Germany was a factor of considerable importance in these efforts. To begin with, the prohibition of 1796 against British goods was extended in March, 1798, to the left shore of the Rhine, which was then united with the French republic; and this prohibition was applied with a strictness which, in an account of the situation written in 1798 and ascribed to Napoleon, was alleged to presage (ébaucher) the Continental System.*36 For the rest, it was mainly a matter of paper projects and pious wishes, not of effective measures, and the majority of them concerned the German North Sea littoral. Here, as a rule, it was the other side of the policy that was turned outwards, that is, the common interests of all the continental states against Great Britain. A writer of German birth, Ch. Theremin, who was later to serve Napoleon in various posts in Germany, published in Paris in the year III (1794-5) a pamphlet with the significant title Intéréts des puissances continentales relativement à l'Angleterre, in which the afterwards well-known doctrine of the natural and inevitable conflict between Great Britain and the Continent was developed at length, and the hostility of the other continental states to France was shown consequently to be contrary to their own best interests. A year or two later, at the beginning of the Congress of Rastadt in 1797, plans were made to bar the mouths of the Elbe and the Weser to the British; and at the same time it was proposed, in a paper now preserved in the archives of the French Foreign Office, that Hanover and Hamburg should be transformed into a republic allied with France, which afterwards was to be joined with the great North German rivers by an extensive system of canals. Aside from its strategical advantages, it was thought that this would establish a commercial combination which would lead to increased sales for French goods and to an embargo on British industrial products. In the same year (1797) this project called forth a refutation published by an anonymous German 'citizen of the world', who turned out to be a true prophet in his exposition of the futility of all efforts to shut out the British. In his opinion, which subsequent experience was destined fully to confirm, the British, under the protection of Heligoland, would divert their trade to Tönning in Holstein and thereby ruin Hamburg and Bremen. He also reminded his readers that the prohibitory measures of the French republic against British goods had so far led to nothing more than an immense system of smuggling.


It was precisely Hamburg that was the central point of the early French efforts to exclude England. The French envoy there, Reinhard, the son of a Swabian clergyman, spoke as early as 1796 of the necessity of preventing the importation of British goods, the exclusion of which from the French market alone he considered at that time sufficient to ruin England. At the beginning of 1798, however, shortly before his removal to Tuscany, Reinhard—chiefly, it is true, in order to protect the Hanse Towns, the prosperity of which he had several reasons to promote—emphasized the necessity of combining all the continental states in such a policy of exclusion. That object would be attained through the active co-operation of Denmark and Prussia with the passive support of Russia; but that would not be possible so long as only the Hanse Towns took part, for in that case the goods might come in across Holstein, that is to say, from the Danish side, through Altona, which was quite close to Hamburg.


About the time of Reinhard's departure, in 1798, there arrived in Hamburg an emissary from the Directory's Minister of Police charged with the mission of combining the many French republicans there in the adoption of measures against British trade. This agitator, a well-known Jacobin named Léonard Bourdon, aroused the horror of the Hamburg city fathers by assembling his fellow countrymen and exhorting them to boycott British goods and also to act as spies upon the commercial activities of Great Britain. Moreover, the draconic French prohibitions on the importation of British goods, to which we have already referred,*37 had effect outside the boundaries of France. Thus Reinhard speaks of the consternation that the prohibitions of 1796 aroused in the Hanse Towns, which had been wont to supply France with those goods.*38


The importance, for the general policy of the French revolutionary governments, of all of these plans for the exclusion of Great Britain from the European Continent, forms, as one may easily surmise, a principal theme in Sorel's book.*39 He seeks to show that the French programme of foreign policy—the 'natural frontiers' (the Atlantic Ocean, the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees)—necessarily involved a recognition of these conquests on the part of all other powers, and that the acquiescence of Great Britain could not be enforced except by attacks on her trade; and that this, in its turn, could be effected only by a continental blockade, 'a formidable and hyperbolical measure, out of all proportion to the object that necessitates it, but nevertheless the only one that can be adopted'. One need not accept the logic of this argument as irrefutable—the point about the imperative necessity of British recognition of the new conquests seems particularly weak—to admit that such thoughts must have occupied the minds of the French politicians who, under various names, guided the destinies of France during the six or seven years that intervened between the outbreak of war in 1793 and Bonaparte's definitive accession to power in 1799. There can be no doubt, therefore, that notions of that character had lain at the foundation of the majority of the legislative measures previously treated. Thus Lecouteulx, the representative who in 1796 reported to the Conseil des Anciens upon the legislative proposal for the exclusion of British goods, justified the measure on the ground that the flags of France and her allies floated from Emden to Trieste, and that almost all the ports on the coasts of the European ocean were closed to Great Britain. Consequently, he concluded, 'we must put an end to the voluntary subsidies which consumers of British goods are paying to that country'.*40


With regard to foreign policy proper, Sorel has brought forward a multitude of examples bearing witness to the same tendency, some of the more significant of which may be mentioned here. Thus about 1794 Caillard, a French diplomatist, proposed that the Continent should be closed by a series of alliances. 'From the Tagus to the Elbe,' he declared, 'there is no point on the mainland where the British should be allowed to set foot.' In 1795 efforts were made to hand Portugal over to Spain, in order thereby 'to deprive England of one of her most valuable provinces'; and the closing of the continental ports was now to affect the whole coastline from Gibraltar to the island of Texel, outside the Zuider Zee. The same tendencies, moreover, determined French policy with regard to Naples and Belgium. In the early part of 1797 Haugwitz, the Prussian foreign minister, wrote in a memorandum intended for the Russian government that there could be no doubt as to the intention of the Directory to seize the coast of the North Sea as far as the mouth of the Elbe, as its plans were known to be to isolate England, separate her from the Continent and exclude her shipping from the ports of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the North Sea. About the same time the American minister in London reported—incorrectly at the time, it is true, but evidently in accord with current rumours—that France had demanded the cessation of trade between the Hanse Towns and England and, its demand having been refused, had recalled its minister there.*41 The Baltic Sea was also to be closed to the British in 1795 by playing Sweden and Denmark against Russia, which for the moment was on friendly terms with Great Britain. But the most characteristic example of all these forerunners to the policy of Napoleon can be found in the instructions (cited by Sorel) to the French envoy at The Hague, dated Fructidor 6 and 7, year III (August 23-4, 1795). This deserves to be cited verbatim:

The alliance with Holland offers the most important result of all, namely, to exclude the British from the Continent, to shut them out in war time from Bayonne to north of Friesland and from access to the Baltic and North Seas. The trade with the interior of Germany will then return to its natural channels.... Deprived of these immense markets, harassed by revolts and internal disturbances which will be the consequence, England will have great embarrassments with her colonial and Asiatic goods. These goods, being unsaleable, will fall to low prices, and the English will find themselves vanquished by excess (vaincus par l'abondance), just as they had wished to vanquish the French by shortage.


In this utterance the familiar policy of strangling exports finds clear expression, and its agreement with the whole of Napoleon's motives for the Continental System is very striking. An excellent parallel, for instance, is exhibited by the boastful survey that was laid before the Corps législatif in 1807.*42 But this process of thought must also be examined in connexion with the views of the French revolutionaries, afterwards taken over by Napoleon, as to the implications and foundations of the economic strength of Great Britain; and the instructions of 1795 thus form a convenient transition to that instructive chapter.

Notes for this chapter

See p. 32.
Schmidt, Le Grand-duché de Berg, p. 418.
Le Moniteur, Jan. 3, 1793; Sorel, op. cit., vol. m, pp. 244-5.
Commentaires de Napoléon Ier (Paris, 1867), vol. III, p. 413. As the essay is not included in the Correspondance, the authorship of the Emperor does not appear to be above doubt.
See pp. 31-32.
Zeyss, Die Entstehung der Handelskammern und die Industrie am Niederrhein während der französischen Herrschaft (Leipzig, 1907), p. 94; Schmidt, Le Grandduché de Berg, pp. 339 et seq.; Serviéres, L'Allemagne française sous Napoléon Ier (Paris, 1904), pp. 128-9; Wohlwill, Neuere Geschichte der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg insbesondere von 1789 bis 1815, in Allgemeine Staaten-Geschichte (Gotha, 1914), Abt. III, Werk x, pp. 181 et seq., 197, 202 note 2; also, Frankreich und Norddeutschland von 1795 bis 1800, in Historische Zeitschrift (1883), pp. 424-5.
Sorel, op. cit., vol. IV (1892), pp. 176, 183, 213, 266 et seq., 359, 387 et seq., 392, 464; vol. V (1903), p. 102.
Le Moniteur, Nov. 4, 1796; Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, &c., vol. II, pp. 248 et seq. Dupont de Nemours combated the proposal, as might have been expected of an orthodox economist; but when the President announced that the motion of Lecouteulx had been carried another member exclaimed: 'Nous sommes sauvés!' Le Moniteur, Nov. 6 (Brumaire 16).
Preussen und Frankreich von 1795 bis 1807, in Publicationen aus den K. Preussischen Staatsarchiven, VIII (Bailleu ed., Leipzig, 1881), vol. I, p. 113; Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, &c., vol. II, pp. 247-8. Admiral Mahan, however, appears to believe in the truth of this altogether unfounded rumour, for the facts of which cf. Wohlwill, Neuere Geschichte, &c., pp. 161, 188-9.
See infra, p. 74.

Part I, Chapter IV

End of Notes

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