Nowhere was Napoleon’s imperialism more evident than in the Continental System. This was an attempt to regulate the economy of the whole Continent. It had a double aim: to build up the export trade of France and to cripple that of Britain.
The Berlin Decree, issued by Napoleon in November 1806, forbade all trade with the British Isles and all commerce in British merchandise. It ordered the arrest of all Britons on the Continent and the confiscation of their property. Britain replied by requiring that neutral vessels wishing to trade with France put in first at a British port and pay duties.
Napoleon retaliated with the Milan Decree (December 1807), ordering the seizure of all neutral ships that complied with the new British policy. The neutrals, as neutrals often are, were caught in the middle; the two decrees effectively instituted a Continental blockade.
Napoleon’s vassals and allies had to support the Continental System or suffer the consequences. Of all the “un-French” activities countenanced in Holland, the worst, in Napoleon’s view, was toleration of Dutch smuggling of English contraband. The emperor also expected the satellites to feed French industrial prosperity.
The Continental System failed almost totally. Only a few French industries benefited; the cessation of sugar imports from the West Indies, for example, promoted the cultivation of native sugar beets.
But the decline of overseas trade depressed Bordeaux and other French Atlantic ports, and the increasing difficulty of obtaining such raw materials as cotton caused widespread unemployment and produced a rash of bankruptcies. Since the new French markets on the Continent did not compensate for the loss of older markets overseas, the value of French exports declined by more than a third between 1805 and 1813.
The Continental System did not ruin Britain, although it did confront the British with a severe economic crisis. Markets abroad for British exports were uncertain; food imports were reduced; while prices rose sharply, wages lagged behind; and because of hoarding, coins were in such short supply that not enough could be minted to keep pace with the demand. Both farm and factory workers suffered acutely.
Yet Britain rode out the storm. More land was brought under the plow. Factory owners improvised substitute payments for their workers when coins were unavailable. Exporters not only developed lucrative new markets in the Americas, the Ottoman Empire, and Asia but also smuggled goods to old customers on the Continent. Napoleon lacked the naval force to seize smugglers at sea, and he lacked a staff of incorruptible customs inspectors to control contraband in the ports.
The Continental System antagonized both the neutral powers and Napoleon’s allies. French seizure of United States merchant vessels in European ports under the terms of the Milan Decree put a dangerous strain on Franco- American relations. But British restrictions also weighed heavily on the Americans.
British impressment of American seamen on the pretext that they were deserters from the Royal Navy, together with the designs on Canada of expansionists in the United States, produced an indecisive and minor Anglo-American war in 1812-1814.