Napoleonic France



THOUGH raised to be a soldier, Napoleon had a sound sense of economic realities as the fate of families, the subsoil of culture, and the strength and weakness of a state. Generally, despite an itch to regulate, he ranged himself on the side of free enterprise, open competition, and private property. He paid little attention to the socialistic plans of Charles Fourier and others for the communal production of goods and the equitable distribution of the product. He felt sure that in any society the abler minority will soon govern the majority, and absorb the greater part of the wealth; moreover, the inspiration of a communist ideal cannot long take the place of differential rewards in reconciling men to toil; in frank analysis, “it is hunger that makes the world move.”1 Moreover, communal ownership is a perpetual temptation to carelessness. “Whilst an individual owner, with a personal interest in his property, is always wide awake, and brings his plans to fruition, communal interest is inherently sleepy and unproductive, because individual enterprise is a matter of instinct, and communal enterprise is a matter of public spirit, which is rare.”2 So he opened all doors, all careers, to all men, of whatever fortune or pedigree; and until the later years of his rule France enjoyed a prosperity that brought peace to all classes; there was no unemployment,3 no political revolt. “Nobody is interested in overthrowing a government in which all the deserving are employed.”4

It was a prime principle with Napoleon that state “finances founded upon a good system of agriculture never fail.”5 Overseeing everything, overlooking nothing, he saw to it that protective tariffs, reliable financing, and well-maintained transport by roads and canals should encourage the peasants to labor steadily, to buy land, to bring more and more of it under cultivation, and to provide sturdy youngsters for his armies. Too many French farmers were sharecroppers or hired farm laborers, but half a million of them, by 1814, owned the acres that they sowed. An English lady traveling in France in that year described the peasants as enjoying a degree of prosperity unknown to their class anywhere else in Europe.6 These tillers of the soil looked to Napoleon as a living guarantee of their title deeds, and remained loyal to him until their lands languished in the absence of their conscripted sons.

Industry too was a prime interest with Napoleon. He made it a point to visit factories, to show interest in processes and products, in the artisans and the managers. He aspired to bring science to the service of industry. He set up industrial exhibitions—in 1801 in the Louvre, and in 1806 under immense tents in the Place des Invalides. He organized the École des Arts et Métiers, and rewarded inventors and scientists. Experiments with steam propulsion were made in 1802 with a clumsy engine on a barge in a canal near Paris; their success was not convincing, but they spurred further efforts. In 1803 Robert Fulton offered a plan for applying steam power to navigation; Napoleon turned it over to the Institut National, where, after two months of experiment, it was rejected as impracticable. French industry developed more slowly than the British, having fewer markets, less capital, and less machinery. However, in 1801, Joseph-Marie Jacquard exhibited his new apparatus for weaving; in 1806 the French government bought the invention and distributed it; French textile industry became competitive with the British. The silk industry in Lyons, which in 1800 had 3,500 looms, used 10,720 in 1808;7 and in 1810 one textile entrepreneur employed eleven thousand workers in his mills.8Meanwhile French chemists continued to meet the British exclusion of sugar, cotton, and indigo by making sugar from beetroot, dyes from woad, and linens superior to cotton;9 also they turned potatoes into brandy.

Napoleon helped French industries with protective tariffs and the Continental Blockade, tided them over financial difficulties with loans on easy terms, opened up new markets for French products in his expanding empire, and took up any slack of employment by extensive public works. Some of these were monuments to the glory of Napoleon and his armies, like the Vendôme Column, the Madeleine, and the triumphal Arcs du Carrousel and de l’Étoile; some were military fortifications or facilities, like the fortress, dike, and port of Cherbourg; some were utilitarian structures artistically designed, like the Bourse, the Bank of France, the General Post Office, the Théâtre de l’Odéon, even the Halles des Blés or des Vins—the stately emporiums of corn or wines (1811). Some were aids to agriculture, like the draining of marshes; some to transport and trade. Here belong the opening of new streets in Paris, like the Rues de Rivoli, de Castiglione, de la Paix, and two miles of quais, like the Quai d’Orsay, along the Seine; more important, 33,500 miles of new roads in France, and countless bridges, including the Ponts d’Austerlitz and d’Iéna in Paris; add the deepening of river beds and the extension of France’s magnificent system of canals. Major canals were dug connecting Paris with Lyons, and connecting Lyons with Strasbourg and Bordeaux. Napoleon fell before two other systems could be completed: canals binding the Rhine with the Danube and the Rhone, and binding Venice with Genoa.10

The workers who dug the canals, raised the triumphal arches, and manned the factories were not allowed to go on strike, or to form unions to bargain for better working conditions or higher pay. However, Napoleon’s government saw to it that wages should keep abreast of prices, that bakers and butchers and manufacturers were under state regulation, and that—especially in Paris—the necessaries of life should be plentifully supplied. Until the last years of Napoleon’s rule, wages rose faster than prices, and the proletariat, sharing modestly in the general prosperity and proud of Napoleon’s victories, became more patriotic than the bourgeoisie. It gave scant hearing to bourgeois liberals, like Mme. de Staël or Benjamin Constant, preaching liberty.

Nevertheless there were sources and voices of discontent. As free enterprise progressively enriched the clever, some men perceived that equality withers under liberty, and that a laissez-faire government allows the concentration of wealth to exclude half of the population from the fruits of invention and the graces of civilization. In 1808 François-Marie Fourier issued his Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales—the first classic of Utopian socialism. He proposed that those dissatisfied with the existing organization of industry should unite in cooperative communities (phalanges), each of some four hundred families, living together in a phalanstery, or common building; that all members should spend part of the working day in agriculture (collectively organized), part in domestic or group industry, part in leisure or cultural pursuits; that each individual should perform a variety of tasks, and should change his occupation occasionally; that each individual should share equally in the products or profits of the phalanx; and that each phalanx should have a community center, a school, a library, a hotel, and a bank. This plan inspired idealists in both hemispheres, and Brook Farm, near Boston, was only one of several utopian communities that were soon cut down by the natural individualism of men.

Napoleon himself was not very fond of capitalism. He called the Americans “mere merchants,” who “put all their glory into making money.”11 He encouraged French commerce by the multiplication and maintenance of all avenues of transport and trade, and by the supply and steadiness of money; but he discouraged it by the thousand and one regulations of the Continental Blockade. Finally yielding to complaints, he issued (1810–11) licenses for the export of certain goods to Britain, and for the import of sugar, coffee, and other foreign products. He charged for these licenses, and a good deal of favoritism and corruption entered into their issuance.12 Petty tradesmen fared better in France than wholesale merchants as industry grew; stores were stocked beyond French precedent as agriculture, industry, and transport expanded; and frequented streets blossomed with colorful boutiques; but the great port cities—Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Le Havre, Antwerp, and Amsterdam—were in decay, and the merchants were turning against Napoleon and his blockade.

His greatest success as an administrator was in finance. Strange to say, his wars, till 1812, usually brought in more than they cost; he put upon his enemies the onus of beginning the action; and when he defeated them he charged high fees—and Old Masters—for the lesson. Part of these gleanings he kept under his personal control as a domaine extraordinaire. He boasted in 1811 that he had 300,000,000 gold francs in the caves des Tuileries.13 He used this fund to ease stringencies in the Treasury, to correct dangerous turns in the stock market, to finance public works or municipal improvements, to reward signal services, to distinguish artists and writers, to rescue embarrassed industries, to bribe a friend or an enemy, and to pay for his secret police. Enough remained to prepare for the next war, and to keep taxes far below their level under Louis XVI or the Revolution.14

“Before 1789,” says Taine, “the peasant proprietor paid, on 100 francs’ net income, 14 to the seignior, 14 to the clergy, 53 to the state, and kept only 18 or 19 for himself; after 1800 he pays nothing of his 100 francs of income to the seignior or the clergy; he pays little to the state, only 25 francs to the commune and département, and keeps 70 for his pocket.”16 Before 1789 the manual worker had labored from twenty to thirty-nine of his working days per year to pay his taxes; after 1800, from six to nineteen days. “Through the almost complete exemption [from taxes] of those who have no property, the burden of direct taxation falls almost entirely on those who own property.”16 However, there were many “extremely moderate” indirect or sales taxes, which fell upon all persons equally, and were therefore harder on the poor than on the rich. Toward the end of the imperial regime the costs of war far exceeded its returns; taxes and prices rose, and public discontent spread.

A crisis in finances in 1805 led Napoleon to reorganize the Bank of France, which had been established in 1800 under private management. While he was fighting for his political life at Marengo a group of speculators led by Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard secured control of army supplies. Running into difficulties, they appealed to the bank for a considerable loan; to raise this money the bank, with the permission of the Treasury, issued its own notes as legal currency; these failed to win acceptance in financial transactions, and fell to ninety percent of their face value; the company and the bank faced bankruptcy. On his return to Paris Napoleon rescued the bank with part of the indemnities received from Austria, but he insisted that henceforth it be “under control of the state, but not too much so.” On April 22, 1806, he placed it under a governor and two vice-governors appointed by the government, and fifteen regents chosen by the shareholders. This new Banque de France opened branches at Lyons, Rouen, and Lille, and began a long career of service to the French economy and the state. The government still owns only a minority of the bank’s shares.

Napoleon had small respect for the men who sold supplies to his army and ministries. He took it for granted that every contractor padded his bills, and that some of them offered shoddy materials at first-rate prices. He instructed his appointees to strictly check all bills presented to them, and sometimes he did this himself. “All the contractors,” he told Bourrienne, “all the provision agents, are rogues. … They possess millions, roll in insolent luxury, while my soldiers have neither bread nor shoes. I will have no more of that!”17 At Vienna in 1809 he received complaints of defective clothing and equipment sold to his army; he ordered an inquiry, which showed that the contractors had made large undue profits in these sales; he ordered a court martial; this condemned the embezzlers to death. Every influence was made to save them, but Napoleon refused pardon, and the sentence was carried out.18

By and large, as hostile critics agree,19 the first thirteen years of Napoleon’s rule gave France the greatest prosperity she had ever known. When Las Cases, a titled and forgiven émigré returned in 1805 from a tour of sixty départements, he reported that “France had at no period of her history been more powerful, more flourishing, better governed, and happier.”20 In 1813 the Comte de Montalivet, minister of the interior, claimed that this continuing prosperity was due to “the suppression of feudalism, titles, mortmain, and monastic orders; … to the more equal distribution of wealth, to the clearness and simplification of the laws.”21 In 1800 the population of France was approximately 28 million; in 1813 it was 30 million. It does not seem to be a startling gain, but if the same rate of growth (even uncompounded) had continued till 1870 Napoleon’s nephew would have had 50 million men to meet the challenge of Bismarck’s Germany.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!