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The Decrees

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France: Decrees on Trade 1793-1810

Introduction

By Tom Holmberg

The Eden Treaty of 1786 put a temporary end to almost a hundred years of Anglo-French commercial rivalry.  Unpopular with French merchants and commercial interests, the new-found amity did not survive the outbreak of war with Britain in 1793. In its treaty with the United States in 1778 France had adopted the old Dutch doctrine of "free ships make free goods," but in retaliation to the policies of Britain, including at of June 1793 declaring provisions to be contraband of war, the French on 9 October 1793 (18 vendémiaire, an II) enacted a law authorizing the seizure of all British goods in France.  Simply using or wearing British products could lead to the possessor being considered a suspect.

The British applied the unilateral "Rule of 1756" (that no treaty had ever ratified as international law) which stated that a neutral had the right to carry on, in time of war, his accustomed trade, but is barred from engaging in trade with those ports from which he was prohibited in time of peace.  In 1756, as after 1793, the French found themselves at a disadvantage at sea, so they opened their colonial ports, which had formerly been closed, to trade by neutrals.  As such trade might enable the colonies of France to hold out against the British, the British saw such a policy as violating her maritime rights.  Sir William Scott, in the case of the Nancy, presented the British view of the Rule of 1756: "I understand the rule of law to be that the trade between the colony and the mother country in Europe, being opened by the enemy for his own relief under the pressure of war, cannot innocently be undertaken by a neutral, nor without the hazard of rendering him liable to be considered as giving immediate aid and adherence to that belligerent to the unjust disadvantage of his adversary."

Contrary to the generally-accepted "Law of Nations" the United States had adopted the principle of "free ships make free goods." The United States in its treaties with France in 1778, the Netherlands (1782), Sweden (1783), Prussia (1785), Morocco (1787), Tripoli (1796) and Tunis (1797) all affirmed the principle that "Free ships make free goods."  In its treaty with France in 1800 the United States agreed to both the principle of "free ships, free goods" and "enemy's ships, enemy's goods."  But in Jay's Treaty with Great Britain (1795) it was agreed that enemy property on neutral ships should be confiscated and that neutral property on enemy ships was allowed.

The French saw Jay's Treaty as a violation of the treaty of 1778, a betrayal by the United States that France had helped to free and saw the United States as now allied with Britain.  The French passed new laws affecting American trade. The law of Jan. 1798 allowed French vessels to stop any neutral ship trading with Britain.  If only a single item of British origin is found on board, the entire cargo may be seized.  The result was the so-called Quasi-War with France, a naval campaign fought mainly in the West Indies.

The United States was not alone in putting forth the policy of "free bottoms, free goods."  In the Second Armed Neutrality of 1800, Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Prussia agreed, "1. That any vessel may freely sail from port to port and on the coasts of nations at war. 2. That property belonging to subjects of belligerent Powers shall be free on board the ships of neutrals, excepting goods that are contraband."  The assassination of Tsar Paul I of Russia and the bombardment of Copenhagen by the British put an end to the armed neutrality of the northern powers.

Thermidor saw an easing of France's policies towards neutral trade, but the Directory imposed new, more rigorous policies, including declaring Americans serving in the navies of her enemies to be pirates.  Before 1806 French privateering was, in the words of Marshall Smelser, "mostly reprisal for American relations with hungry colonists or with rebellious Negroes in the West Indies, especially in Saint-Domingue."

!806 also saw the imposition of a commercial blockade against France by an Order in Council dated 16 May.  Named after the British foreign minister, the "Fox Blockade" barred neutral ships from trading at ports between the mouth of the Seine and Ostend (later expanded to the mouth of the Elbe).  Beyond this area ships could only trade with the continent if they had not loaded at ports of Great Britain's enemies and did not intend to return to any such ports.  In effect a "paper" blockade, Napoleon was soon to respond with a "paper" blockade of his own.

In July 1807 Champagny, the French Foreign Minister, wrote to Napoleon of the importance of trade with the United States to France.  While in trade with America "the balance is to the disadvantage of France, yet America carries away much of our brandy, the colonial goods which she furnishes us are the produce of our colonies, or reached us formerly by the English, so that England has lost what America seems to have gained with France.  Besides the Americans begin to get a taste for our manufactures, especially silks…" When the war ended, Champagny pointed out, France would be able to carry its own colonial produce, but America would still have a taste for French goods.  Napoleon rejected his foreign minister's advice. 

Napoleon's Continental System began with the promulgation of the Berlin Decree of 21 November 1806 and the first Milan Decree of 23 November 1807. Napoleon had declared "une croisade contre le sucre et le café, contre les percales et les mousselines" ("…a crusade against sugar and coffee, against percales and muslin").  To his brother Louis Napoleon wrote that his aim was to "conquérir la mer par la puissance de la terre" ("…conquer the sea with the power of the land"). The Bayonne decree of 17 April 1808 ordered the seizure all American ships in European ports, on the pretext that they were in violation of the U. S. Embargo Act (22 December 1807), resulting in over ten million dollars in United States goods and ships being confiscated.

Britain was placed under blockade, it was ordered that all trade with Britain should cease, British goods on the continent were subject to seizure and no ship could enter any port of France or her allies after having visited a British port.  "During the Continental System in 1807-8," historian Peter Mathias recounts, "British exports to Europe were running at £9 million per annum.  When the ports opened again in 1814 goods worth £28 million, much of it derived from re-exports of colonial goods, were sold." The Moniteur of 25 September 1806 gave another reason for the promulgation of Napoleon's Continental System: "La prohibition des marchandises étrangères de côtes que vient d'ordonner le Gouvernement ne contribuera pas peu à nous faire obtenir le resultat si désirable de fabriquer nous-mêmes la totalité de articles dont nous avons besoin."

In March of 1809 the United States enacted a Non-Intercourse Act that stated that any French or British ship entering an American port would be confiscated.  Despite his claim that he was unaware of the Non-Intercourse Act, Napoleon refers to it in a note written in December 1809.  Napoleon responded with the Rambouillet Decree declaring all American ships entering a French port subject to confiscation.  The decree was made retroactive to 20 May 1809, the date of the American Act.  Napoleon had turned the U.S. law against themselves, since American vessels were banned from trading with France any vessel claiming to be American, Napoleon claimed, must be engaged in smuggling.  The Macon Bill of May 1810 restored United States trade with France and Britain.

In July of 1810 rumors swirled in Paris that the U. S. intended to declare war on France in retaliation for the Rambouillet Decree. On 4 August 1810 Champagny, the duc de Cadore, sent to the American ambassador to France, Gen. John Armstrong, a note (largely written by Napoleon) declaring the revocation of Napoleon's Berlin and Milan decrees if either Britain revoked its Orders in Council or the U. S. Congress resumed its policy of non-intercourse with Britain.  At a birthday reception Napoleon remarked that American cannon should talk if England did not now revoke its Orders in Council. Congress repealed its Act, but France continued to seize American ships and goods.  Some American vessels were released, but apparently these had not actually violated Napoleon's Continental System.

Issued on the same day as the Cadore Letter, an expanded system of licenses and the Trianon tariff continued the economic warfare on another front.  The tariff, which affected only twenty-one items, all colonial products prohibited under the Code system—cottons, sugar, coffee, spices, etc.—raised duties to an exorbitant rate.  The duty on raw sugar rose from 55 francs per metric quintal (100 kilograms) in 1806 to 300 francs under the Trianon regime.  The duty on raw cotton from South America and the U. S. rose from 60 francs to 800 francs.

The practical effect of the new tariff was to retain the blockade no matter whatever the effect of the Cadore letter.  Frank Edgar Melvin observed that, "The Trianon tariff of 5 August was actually a public evidence that the old Continental System of rigid exclusion, of a commercial crusade against England, had failed, and while nominally it had not been abandoned, really it had given place to a new system of regulation, to navigation acts, and to a continental protective tariff system directed against English and colonial wares."

The final major piece of French legislation in the trade war begun in 1793 was the Fontainebleau Decree (18 October 1810) that introduced new penalties for smuggling including ten years' severe penal servitude and branding for the worst offenders and confiscation of colonial goods and public burning for prohibited goods (burning was an idea borrowed from the British, this penalty having been renewed at the beginning of the reign of George III, as pointed out in an article in the Moniteur on 9 December 1810).  Special customs courts (cours prévôtales des douanes) were established to hand out these new penalties.

Decrees of France

1793, May 9.   Authorizes French vessels to arrest and bring into the ports of the republic vessels laden with provisions destined for an enemy port.

1793, May 23.  Exempts American vessels from the decree of the 9th.

1793, May 28.   Suspends the decree of the 23rd of May.

1793, July 1.  The decree of the 23rd again enforced.

1793, July 27.   The decree of the 23rd of May repealed, and that of the 9th of May enforced.

1794, November 18, (25th Brumaire 3rd year.)   General regulations; the most important is, that merchandise belonging to the enemy is made liable to seizure in neutral vessels, until the enemy shall exempt from seizure French merchandise similarly situated.

1795, January 3, (14th Nivose 3rd year.)   Repeals the fifth article of the above, and exempts enemy goods from capture in neutral vessels.

1796, July 2, (14th Messidor, 4th year.)   The French will treat neutral nations as they suffer themselves to be treated by the English.

1797, March 2, (17th Ventose, 5th year.)   Enemy's property in neutral vessels liable to confiscation; makes necessary rôles d'équipages.

1798, January 18, (29th Nivose, 6th year.) The character of vessels to be determined by that of their cargoes.

1799, March 18, (28th Ventose, 7th year.)  Explains the fourth article of the decree of the 2nd of March, 1797.

1799, October 29, (8th Brumaire, 7th year.)  Neutrals found on board enemy vessels liable to be treated as pirates.

1799, November 14, (24th Brumaire, 7th year.)   Suspends the operation of the above decree   of the 29th of October.

1800, December 13, (23rd Frimaire, 8th year.)   Repeals the first article of the law of the (29th Nivose, 6th year,) 18th January, 1798.

1800, December 19, (29th Frimaire, 8th year.)

1806, November 21.  Berlin decree.

1807, December 17.   Milan decree.

1808, April 17.   Bayonne decree.

1810, March 23.  Rambouillet decree.

1810, August 5.  Cadore letter.

1810, August 5.  Trianon Tariff.

Miscellaneous Items

1796, August 1. Extract from the registers of the special agency of the Executive Directory to the Windward islands.

1797, February 1. Extract from the registers of the special agency of the Executive Directory to the Windward islands.

1797, November 27. Extract from the Register of the Resolves of the Commission delegated by the French Government to the Leeward islands.

1805, February 5. L. Ferrand, General of Brigade, Commander-in-chief of St. Domingo, acting as Captain General, and a member of the Legion of Honor

Note: See also "Documents upon the Continental System."  For information on Britain's Orders in Council, see "Orders in Council and Licenses." For a copy of the U.S. Embargo Act, see "The Embargo Act of 1807."

Source:

American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. Class I.: Foreign Relations. Selected and edited under the authority of Congress. Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton, 1832-1861.

Placed on the Napoleon Series March 2003

 

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