Then suddenly, as if some evil force was coordinating catastrophes, the whole many-faceted economy seemed to fall to pieces, and to founder in a whirlpool of bank failures, market disruptions, factory closings, unemployment, strikes, poverty, riots, and the threat of starvation—just as the miracle-working Emperor was planning to raise money and troops and morale for a life-and-death struggle with a Russia distant, unknown, and immense.
The causes of a recent depression are hard to specify; how shall we analyze the causes of that 1811 depression in France, which was apparently more severe than any that the oldest among us can remember? A learned historian6 ascribes it to two main sources: (1) the failure of the French textile industry to secure needed raw material and capital; and (2) the failure of a banking firm in Lübeck. French spinning mills had relied upon the importation of raw cotton for their looms; the protectionist policy of the French government had placed a high tariff on such imports; the supply fell and its price rose; the French mills could not afford to pay this price for all the material needed to keep all their looms busy; they could not pay the rising rate of interest charged by French banks for capital loans; the mill owners felt forced to discharge more and more of their employees. The failure of the Lübeck bank, soon followed by similar bankruptcies in Hamburg and Amsterdam, affected Parisian firms; bank failures in France rose from seventeen in October, 1810, to forty-one in November, to sixty-one in January, 1811. The scarcity and high cost of bank loans forced one business firm after another to reduce its working staff, even to suspend operations; soon the streets of French cities were crowded with jobless workers seeking to sell their possessions, or begging for bread; some committed suicide.7 Bands of unemployed, in the Nord department, raided farms and seized the grain; in the towns they attacked markets and warehouses; on roads and rivers they stopped and pillaged transports of food; the chaos of 1793 seemed to have returned.
Napoleon decreed severe punishments for crimes against public order, sent soldiers to check violent strikes, and organized free distributions of food. A decree of August 28 sent 500,000 hundredweights of wheat and 30,000 sacks of flour to critical centers of distress. Meanwhile he interrupted the Continental Blockade to allow the import of alien corn; he raised tariffs on foreign products competing with French industries; he arranged government loans to enable firms to resume employment and production. In May, 1812, following revolutionary precedents, he decreed a “maximum” price for wheat; it failed, for farmers kept their product from the market until they received the price they demanded. Private charity helped the government to avoid a national upheaval. Count Rumford, American-British scientist then living in France, arranged “soupes de Rumfort,” made chiefly of beans and peas, which not only provided vegetable proteins but appeased the cry for bread.
This economic crisis, coming amid preparations for his invasion of Russia, was a test of nerves for Napoleon, and it may have shared in weakening his confidence and resolution. But his good fortune did not yet desert him. The harvest of 1812 promised and proved to be abundant; bread became cheaper; the unemployed could at least eat. Banks reopened or were replaced by new ones; loans were made; capital, that unseen and indispensable producer, resumed its role in the factories; wages could be paid for work on goods that might take half a year to reach a purchaser; the markets were again supplied. Now Napoleon could dedicate himself to a war to enforce a blockade that had already been doomed by the behavior of nations and the nature of man.