The National System of Political Economy (6)

 Friedrich List

The National System of Political Economy (6)

Chapter 6

The French

France, too, inherited many a remnant of Roman Civilisation. On the irruption of the German Franks, who loved nothing but the chase, and changed many districts again into forests and waste which had been long under cultivation, almost everything was lost again. To the monasteries, however, which subsequently became such a great hindrance to civilisation, France, like all other European countries, is indebted for most of her progress in agriculture during the Middle Ages. The inmates of religious houses kept up no feuds like the nobles, nor harassed their vassals with calls to military service, while their lands and cattle were less exposed to rapine and extermination. The clergy loved good living, were averse to quarrels, and sought to gain reputation and respect by supporting the necessitous. Hence the old adage ’It is good to dwell under the crosier.’ The Crusades, the institution of civic communities and of guilds by Louis IX (Saint Louis), and the proximity of Italy and Flanders, had considerable effect at an early period in developing industry in France. Already in the fourteenth century, Normandy and Brittany supplied woollen and linen cloths for home consumption and for export to England. At this period also the export trade in wines and salt, chiefly through the agency of Hanseatic middlemen, had become important.

By the influence of Francis I the silk manufacture was introduced into the South of France. Henry IV favoured this industry, as well as the manufacture of glass, linen, and woollens; Richelieu and Mazarin favoured the silk manufactories, the velvet and woollen manufactures of Rouen and Sedan, as well as the fisheries and navigation.

On no country did the discovery of America produce more favourable effects than upon France. From Western France quantities of corn were sent to Spain. Many peasants migrated every year from the Pyrenean districts to the north-east of Spain in search of work. Great quantities of wine and salt were exported to the Spanish Netherlands, while the silks, the velvets, as also especially the articles of luxury of French manufacture, were sold in considerable quantities in the Netherlands, England, Spain, and Portugal. Owing to this cause a great deal of Spanish gold and silver got into circulation in France at an early period.

But the palmy days of French industry first commenced with Colbert.

At the time of Mazarin’s death, neither manufacturing industry, commerce, navigation, nor the fisheries had attained to importance, while the financial condition of the country was at its worst.

Colbert had the courage to grapple single-handed with an undertaking which England could only br ing to a successful issue by the persevering efforts of three centuries, and at the cost of two revolutions. From all countries he obtained the most skilful workmen, bought up trade secrets, and procured better machinery and tools. By a general and efficient tariff he secured the home markets for native industry. By abolishing, or by limiting as much as possible, the provincial customs collections, by the construction of highways and canals, he promoted internal traffic. These measures benefited agriculture even more than manufacturing industry because the number of consumers was thereby doubled and trebled, and the producers were brought into easy and cheap communication with the consumers. He further promoted the interests of agriculture by lowering the amounts of direct imposts levied upon landed property, by mitigating the severity of the stringent measures previously adopted in collecting the revenue, by equalising the incidence of taxation, and lastly by introducing measures for the reduction of the rate of interest. He prohibited the exportation of corn only in times of scarcity and high prices. To the extension of the foreign trade and the promotion of fisheries he devoted special attention. He re-established the trade with the Levant, enlarged that with the colonies, and opened up a trade with the North. Into all branches of the administration he introduced the most stringent economy and perfect order. At his death France possessed 50,000 looms engaged in the manufacture of woollens; she produced annually silk manufactures to the value of 50 millions of francs. The State revenues had increased by 28 millions of francs. The kingdom was in possession of flourishing fisheries, of an extensive mercantile marine, and a powerful navy.(1*)

A century later, the economists have sharply censured Colbert, and maintained that this statesman had been anxious to promote the interests of manufactures at the expense of agriculture: a reproach which proves nothing more than that these authorities were themselves incapable of appreciating the nature of manufacturing industry.(2*)

If, however, Colbert was in error in opposing periodical obstacles to the exportation of raw materials, yet by fostering the growth and progress of native industries he so greatly increased the demand for agricultural produce that he gave the agricultural interest tenfold compensation for any injury which he caused to it by the above-named obstacles. If, contrary to the dictates of enlightened statesmanship, he prescribed new processes of manufacture, and compelled the manufacturers by penal enactments to adopt them, it should be borne in mind that these processes were the best and the most profitable known in his day, and that he had to deal with a people which, sunk into the utmost apathy by reason of a long despotic rule, resisted every innovation even though it was an improvement.

The reproach, however, that France had lost a large portion of her native industry through Colbert’s protective system, could be levelled against Colbert only by that school which utterly ignored the revocation of the Edict of Nantes with its disastrous consequences. In consequence of these deplorable measures, in the course of three years after Colbert’s death half a million of the most industrious, skilful, and thriving inhabitants of France were banished; who, consequently, to the double injury of France which they had enriched, transplanted their industry and their capital to Switzerland, to every Protestant country in Germany, especially to Prussia, as also to Holland and England. Thus the intrigues of a bigoted courtesan ruined in three years the able and gifted work of a whole generation, and cast France back again into its previous state of apathy; while England, under the aegis of her Constitution, and invigorated by a Revolution which called forth all the energies of the nation, was prosecuting with increasing ardour and without intermission the work commenced by Elizabeth and her predecessors.

The melancholy condition to which the industry and the finances of France had been reduced by a long course of misgovernment, and the spectacle of the great prosperity of England, aroused the emulation of French statesmen shortly before the French Revolution. Infatuated with the hollow theory of the economists, they looked for a remedy, in opposition to Colbert’s policy, in the establishment of free trade. It was thought that the prosperity of the country could be restored at one blow if a better market were provided for French wines and brandies in England, at the cost of permitting the importation of English manufactures upon easy terms (a twelve per cent duty). England, delighted at the proposal, willingly granted to the French a second edition of the Methuen Treaty, in the shape of the so-called Eden Treaty of 1786; a copy which was soon followed by results not less ruinous than those produced by the Portuguese original.

The English, accustomed to the strong wines of the Peninsula, did not increase their consumption to the extent which had been expected, whilst the French perceived with horror that all they had to offer the English were simply fashions and fancy articles, the total value of which was insignificant : whereas the English manufacturers, in all articles of prime necessity, the total amount of which was enormous, could greatly surpass the French manufacturers in cheapness of prices, as well as in quality of their goods, and in granting of credit. When, after a brief competition, the French manufacturers were brought to the brink of ruin, while French wine-growers had gained but little, then the French Government sought to arrest the progress of this ruin by terminating the treaty, but only acquired the conviction that it is much easier to ruin flourishing manufactories in a few years than to revive ruined manufactories in a whole generation. English competition had engendered a taste for English goods in France, the consequence of which was an extensive and long-continued contraband trade which it was difficult to suppress. Meanwhile it was not so difficult for the English, after the termination of the treaty, to accustom their palates again to the wines of the Peninsula.

Notwithstanding that the commotions of the Revolution and the incessant wars of Napoleon could not have been favourable to the prosperity of French industry notwithstanding that the French lost during this period most of their maritime trade and all their colonies, yet French manufactories, solely from their exclusive possession of their home markets, and from the abrogation of feudal restrictions, attained during the Empire to a higher degree of prosperity than they had ever enjoyed under the preceding ancien rйgime. The same effects were noticeable in Germany and in all countries over which the Continental blockade extended.

Napoleon said in his trenchant style, that under the existing circumstances of the world any State which adopted the principle of free trade must come to the ground. In these words he uttered more political wisdom in reference to the commercial policy of France than all contemporary political economists in all their writings. We cannot but wonder at the sagacity with which this great genius, without any previous study of the systems of political economy, comprehended the nature and importance of manufacturing power. Well was it for him and for France that he had not studied these systems. ’Formerly,’ said Napoleon, ’there was but one description of property, the possession of land; but a new property has now risen up, namely, industry.’ Napoleon saw, and in this way clearly enunciated, what contemporary economists did not see, or did not clearly enunciate, namely, that a nation which combines in itself the power of manufactures with that of agriculture is an immeasurably more perfect and more wealthy nation than a purely agricultural one. What Napoleon did to found and promote the industrial education of France, to improve the country’s credit, to introduce and set going new inventions and improved processes, and to perfect the means of internal communication in France, it is not necessary to dwell upon in detail, for these things are still too well remembered. But what, perhaps, does call for special notice in this connection, is the biassed and unfair judgment passed upon this enlightened and powerful ruler by contemporary theorists.

With the fall of Napoleon, English competition, which had been till then restricted to a contraband trade, recovered its footing on the continents of Europe and America. Now for the first time the English were heard to condemn protection and to eulogise Adam Smith’s doctrine of free trade, a doctrine which heretofore those practical islanders considered as suited only to an ideal state of Utopian perfection. But an impartial, critical observer might easily discern the entire aBsence of mere sentimental motives of philanthropy in this conversion, for only when increased facilities for the exportation of English goods to the continents of Europe and America were in question were cosmopolitan arguments resorted to; but so soon as the question turned upon the free importation of corn, or whether foreign goods might be allowed to compete at all with British manufactures in the English market, in that case quite different principles were appealed to.(3*) Unhappily, it was said, the long continuance in England of a policy contrary to natural principles had created an artificial state of things, which could not Be interfered with suddenly without incurring the risk of dangerous and mischievous consequences. It was not to be attempted without the greatest caution and prudence. It was England’s misfortune, not her fault. All the more gratifying ought it to be for the nations of the European and American continents, that their happy lot and condition left them quite free to partake without delay of the blessings of free trade.

In France, although her ancient dynasty reascended the throne under the protection of the banner of England, or at any rate by the influence of English gold, the above arguments did not obtain currency for very long. England’s free trade wrought such havoc amongst the manufacturing industries which had prospered and grown strong under the Continental blockade system, that a prohibitive rйgime was speedily resorted to, under the protecting aegis of which, according to Dupin’s testimony,(4*) the producing power of French manufactories was doubled between the years 1815 and 1827.


1. ’Eloge de Jean Baptiste Colbert, par Necker’ (1773) (OEuvres Completes, vol. xv.).

2. See Quesnay’s paper entitled, ’Physiocratie, ou du Gouvernement le plus avantageux au Genre Humain (1768),’ Note 5, ’sur la maxime viii,’ wherein Quesnay contradicts and condemns Colbert in two brief pages, whereas Necker devoted a hundred pages to the exposition of Colbert’s system and of what he accomplished. It is hard to say whether we are to wonder most at the ignorance of Quesnay on matters of industry, history, and finance, or at the presumption with which he passes judgment upon such a man as Colbert without adducing grounds for it. Add to that, that this ignorant dreamer was not even candid enough to mention the expulsion of the Huguenots; nay, that he was not ashamed to allege, contrary to all truth, that Colbert had restricted the trade in corn between province and province by vexatious police ordinances.

3. A highly accomplished American orator, Mr Baldwin, Chief Justice of the United States, when referring to the Canning-Huskisson system of free trade, shrewdly remarked, that, like most English productions, it had been manufactured not so much for home consumption as for exportation.

Shall we laugh most or weep when we call to mind the rapture of enthusiasm with which the Liberals in France and Germany, more particularly the cosmopolitan theorists of the philanthropic school, and notably Mons. J. B. Say, hailed the announcement of the Canning-Huskisson system? So great was their jubilation, that one might have thought the millennium had come. But let us see what Mr Canning’s own biographer says about this minister’s views on the subject of free trade.

’Mr Canning was perfectly convinced of the truth of the abstract principle, that commerce is sure to flourish most when wholly unfettered; but since such had not been the opinion either of our ancestors or of surrounding nations, and since in consequence restraints had been imposed upon all commercial transactions, a state of things had grown up to which the unguarded application of the abstract principle, however true it was in theory, might have been somewhat mischievous in practice.’ (The Political Life of Mr Canning, by Stapleton, p. 3.) In the year 1828, these same tactics of the English had again assumed a prominence so marked that Mr Hume, the Liberal member of Parliament, felt no hesitation in stigmatising them in the House as the strangling of Continental industries.

4. Forces productives de la France.