There are more books with “Napoleon” in their titles than there have been days since the death of the French emperor and general in 1821.
So reports Andrew Roberts in his magisterial biography of the famous ruler, who rose from semi-obscurity in Corsica and imposed his will on Europe—and then lost everything, when he finally fell to a rival army at Waterloo.
That’s more than 73,000 books, by the way. Now his epic story is about to become a blockbuster movie: “Napoleon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Ridley Scott will arrive in theaters on November 22, the day before Thanksgiving.
The trailer looks amazing, with burning cities, blazing cannons, charging cavalry, marching soldiers, gruesome guillotines, and more.
Yet this movie almost certainly will overlook a key detail: The fascinating Frenchman’s defeat was less about battlefields than it was about economics.
Napoleon lost everything because of a trade war.
His tale holds lessons and warnings about ambition, power, and statesmanship. There’s also a romance at the heart of it, involving the Empress Josephine. That’s why we keep reading the books and why Hollywood is putting out its big-budget biopic.
Napoleon is often portrayed as a tyrannical warmonger. In his 2014 book, “Napoleon: A Life,” the historian Andrew Roberts insists that this is unfair. He points out, for example, that “twice as many wars were declared on him than he had declared on others.”
Moreover, writes Roberts, Napoleon was a great reformer of government: “The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified, and geographically extended by Napoleon.” He also promoted science, legal codes, and local administration.
On top of this, of course, he was one of history’s greatest generals.
Not even the best military commander can win a trade war, however. Napoleon made the fatal mistake of adopting the protectionism of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a 17th-century French finance minister whose commitment to governmental interference in markets is sometimes called “Colbertism.”
Roberts sums up the result for Napoleon: “It was thus Colbertian protectionism that brought him down, far more than that bloodlust and egomania of which he is so often accused.”
Napoleon should have known better.
After all, he once read a translated edition of “The Wealth of Nations,” by Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher who is credited with inventing modern economics (and whose tricentennial is this year). Napoleon nevertheless rejected Smith’s vision of free markets and free trade. He encouraged industrial subsidies and tried to limit the exchange of goods and service across borders.
In 1806, Napoleon created the Continental System, which banned all commercial activity between the European continent and Britain. Napoleon believed that this economic pressure would force Britain to the bargaining table.
Although French protectionism damaged Britain, it hurt Europe more. Within months, Napoleon had to approve special loans to keep French businesses afloat. Smugglers flourished, even though repeat offenders were subject to the death penalty.
Napoleon also had to approve a series of exceptions: European industry could not supply the shoes and clothes that the French army needed, for instance, and so British manufacturers obtained special trading licenses. Napoleon permitted the export of French wheat to Britain when prices were high because of a poor harvest.
The Continental System even led to public burnings of imported food and demands that people replace coffee with chicory. Napoleon’s “plan to manufacture cotton out of thistles,” reports Roberts, “came to nothing.”
The emperor probably should have consulted with French farmers. They might have informed him that although agriculture can generate bounties, it can’t produce miracles—and that everybody is better off when farmers can sell to customers in other countries.
It turns out that Napoleon was just another public official who failed to talk to the men and women who work the land. We see the same neglect today, to the detriment of farmers as well as the consumers who need what they grow.
Ultimately, Napoleon’s trade war became the shooting war that ended his reign.
The new movie about his life probably won’t go into any of this, and maybe that’s a good thing. Who wants to watch a movie about economic policies?
Yet the life of Napoleon conveys a timeless message: Protectionism always fails and nobody wins a trade war.
Featured photo credit: Charles de Steuben, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons