THE direct cause of the Franco-Russian War of 1812 was Russia’s refusal to continue its observance of the Continental Blockade declared by Napoleon’s Berlin Decree of November 21, 1806. This decree was Napoleon’s plan for closing all the ports and coasts of the European Continent against the entry of British goods. Its purpose was to force Great Britain to end the blockade which it had declared (May 16, 1806) of all French-controlled ports from Brest to the Elbe; to end British interference with France’s maritime trade; to secure the restoration of French colonies captured by Great Britain; and to end the British financing of Continental states in their wars against France.
How was the Continental Blockade working? By 1810 it had brought England to a severe economic depression. In the first two years (1806–08) after Napoleon’s Berlin Decree, Britain’s exports fell from £40,800,000 to £35,200,000; imports of raw cotton fell by ninety-five percent. As one result the domestic price of corn rose from sixty-six to ninety-four shillings per quarter (one fourth of a hundredweight) in little more than one year (1807–08). Meanwhile slackened foreign trade depressed wages, spread unemployment, and set off violent strikes. Britain needed Swedish iron for her industry and Russian lumber for her ships; war with Sweden and Russia’s alliance with France (1807) closed those sources. Britain struggled to counter such setbacks by protecting her remaining trade outlets; her exports to Portugal, Spain, and Turkey rose four hundred percent between 1805 and 1811; hence Napoleon’s costly invasion of the Peninsula.
Matters worsened in Britain as the blockade continued; her exports to northern Europe declined twenty percent in 1810–11. Her adverse trade balance caused a rise in gold payments to Europe, and brought the international value of the pound to so low a point that Grenville and Grey, leaders of the Opposition, called for peace at any price.1 In 1811, one year before Napoleon’s war with Russia, his Continental Blockade reached its maximum effect in Great Britain.
Relatively to England the rival blockades substantially advantaged France. Her port cities—Le Havre, Nantes, Bordeaux, Marseilles—were in such decay that the last two began to call for a return of the Bourbons,2 but internal commerce benefited from the exclusion of British competition, the influx of gold, the abundance of capital, and the subsidies provided by a businessman’s government which enriched its Treasury with the gains of war. French business profited still more from these factors, and from improved access to Continental markets under Napoleon’s control. Mechanical weaving quadrupled from 1806 to 1810, accelerating the Industrial Revolution in France. Full employment and political stability within the extended frontiers gave industry such stimulus that if France had won the Napoleonic Wars she might have caught up with England in production and world trade.
The blockade was favorable to industry and domestic trade, injurious to foreign commerce, in the “Continental System” of states subject to Napoleon. The Hanseatic cities—Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck—naturally suffered from the double blockade; but Switzerland, northern Italy, and the Rhineland communities prospered from the unhindered extension of Napoleonic institutions. Farther east, where industry was less developed, the blockade, preventing the sale of the region’s produce to Britain, was a burden that generated rising discontent. This, of course, was especially so in Russia.
The basic weakness of the Continental Blockade was that it ran counter to the human demand for freedom to explore every avenue of gain. The ports and coastal towns of Europe abounded in men who were willing to risk their lives in smuggling into the Continent British goods made doubly attractive by prohibition. Conversely Continental manufacturers who had enjoyed foreign outlets complained that they had to sacrifice British markets. In Holland the resentment of the great merchant families so moved King Louis Bonaparte that he wrote to Czar Alexander a letter “surpassing in bitterness against Napoleon the most merciless pamphlets.”3
Against the rising opposition Napoleon used 200,000 customs houses, thousands of agents recognizable or disguised, and countless troops to detect violations of the blockade, to arrest and punish and confiscate. In 1812 the court of customs in Hamburg pronounced in eighteen days 127 sentences, some to death; these, however, were rarely, if ever, carried out. Confiscated goods were sold for the French Treasury, some were burned in public bonfires that alienated nearly all onlookers.
Partly to moderate hostility, to raise income, or to ease shortages, Napoleon, as long ago related, began in 1809 to sell licenses, usually for a thousand francs, to import British goods judged necessary to French industry or morale, or to export to Britain goods paid for in coffee, sugar, or gold. Britain had already issued similar licenses—44,346 of them between 1807 and 1812—to override British embargoes.4 By comparison Napoleon issued only 494 licenses by November 25, 1811;5 but Alexander pointed out that while Napoleon demanded strict exclusion of British goods from Russia, he connived at their admission into France.
All in all, the Continental Blockade, despite its widespread unpopularity and the difficulties and blunders in its enforcement, seemed, in 1810, to be succeeding. England was on the verge of bankruptcy, even of a revolution demanding peace; the states allied with France were grumbling but submissive; and France, despite the human and financial drain of the Peninsular War, was prospering as perhaps never before. The Frenchman had little freedom, but he had francs, and his aliquot portion of the glory of victorious France and its incomparable Emperor.