Pierre Branda on Napoleon and money

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Interview by Emmanuelle Papot (translated by Peter Hicks, April 2007)

Pierre Branda on Napoleon and money
Le prix de la gloire: Napoléon et l'argent

After studying economics and business management at the University of Montpellier (MA in economics) and at the I.A.E. in Nice (D.E.A. in Business Management), Pierre Branda (born in 1966) became a company manager in 1990. He has been a Membre correspondant at the Fondation Napoléon since 2002, and has published many articles on financial matters during the Empire, notably: “Les finances et le budget de la France napoléonienne” and “Le testament de Napoléon: une affaire d’argent avant tout”. He took part in the multi-author book Napoléon et l’Europe published by Fayard with the essay “La guerre a-t-elle payé la guerre ?”. In 2006, he wrote, with Thierry Lentz, “Napoléon, l’esclavage et les colonies” also published by Fayard. He has just published (again with Fayard) Le prix de la gloire: Napoléon et l’argent (April 2007), and it is destined to become the classic book on the subject.

You have been writing about ‘Napoleon and money’ for a while now. What brought you to this subject?

Well, my degree in economics and business management was of course partly responsible, but not entirely. I started getting interested in it because Napoleon himself was very interested in money and finance. State finances and economic issues are the subject of much of Napoleon’s correspondence. So seeing that Napoleon himself worked tirelessly on these issues, I thought that the only way you could really appreciate his actions in this respect was to study them in depth yourself. Furthermore, money was not only the Emperor’s constant companion but also omnipresent in the political life of his times. You mustn’t forget that the military expeditions planned or led by Bonaparte (Italy or Santo Domingo) were organised for economic reasons or failed for serious lack of funds (Egypt). On the other hand, how could you not be interested in the extraordinary feat performed by Napoleon of financing fifteen years of war without bankrupting the state, when twenty years earlier French assistance in the American war of Independence, on a relatively modest military level, had brought a thousand-year-old French monarchy to its knees? These subjects are dear to my heart and form much of the material in my latest book, Le prix de la gloire: Napoléon et l’argent.

Did Napoleon see ‘money’ as a force, as a way of getting what he wanted?

Money was one of Napoleon’s most important allies. At several moments, he used it to forge his own destiny. I’ll give you just one example: the payment in May 1796 of the Armée d’Italie’s wages in gold and silver pieces. The decision to fight the First Italian Campaign had to a large extent been taken for financial reasons. The Directory was short of money because paper money was no longer used, and so it gazed covetously on the wealth of the Italian peninsula. It then sent an inexperienced general, Bonaparte (he had never commanded an army in combat), to try to fill up its coffers. The initial results were very encouraging. Bonaparte soon sent several millions to Paris. But his army remained rather poorly supplied and, apart from the pillaging, most of the “booty” was not for the troops. Counter to all expectations, Bonaparte in Milan paid his army in coins, despite the Directory’s instructions to the opposite. This measure was “revolutionary” for the time in that the armies of the Republic had before only ever received depreciated paper money called assignats. By paying in coin, Bonaparte got loyalty from his army and ensured his position at its head. Other generals, such as Moreau, tried to follow him, but as soldiers respectful of authority they were never able to go against the instructions of the government. There are many other examples too, such as the fact that during the Empire expenses related to regime dignitaries were higher than those of Louis XVI for his own court.

Did Napoleon have a financial policy during the Consulate and Empire or did he react to situations as they arose?

Firstly, it should not be forgotten that the Consulate was a huge success in financial terms. It is true that the Directory was fairly effective in settling financial matters after the worst of the Revolution, but Bonaparte and his team were able to put public interest at the top of the agenda, and they built a financial system which could provide the State with what you might call “enough to live on”. In my book, I analyse the methods used to achieve this result. It is also important to note that Napoleon’s financial policy formed part of a greater whole. Napoleon Bonaparte was first and foremost a political animal. So if a tax measure was likely to damage the popularity of his regime, he would not hesitate to delay its application. Taxes on tobacco, salt and alcohol, for example, were not to be introduced until 1806, one his power was firmly grounded. By doing this, he was in fact letting State finances be dictated by circumstances, particularly in the early years. Without the sale of Louisiana in 1803 and the Spanish subsidies, it would have been impossible to finance the construction of the Boulogne camp or the naval improvements undertaken in the attempt to invade Britain. Given that resources were so aleatoric, the State nearly collapsed during the Négociants réunis or United Merchants affair. This unfortunate episode, long considered a financial scandal, shows how much Napoleon, right in the middle of the Austerlitz campaign, was cruelly short of funds. After 1806, everything changed. Political considerations played second fiddle to the financial imperatives of the Grand Empire. Napoleon tried to control money wherever he could, both in his Empire and in the satellite countries such as Italy, Westphalia, Naples, and Holland. He also created structures, notably the Domaine extraordinaire, which would manage the produce of foreign conquest. I devote a large part of my book to this attempt to channel all the money in Europe towards his own policies. However, in doing this he became what you could call the taxman of old Europe, and this certainly sapped any popularity which French presence abroad might have had.

What is your conclusion regarding the finances of Napoleonic France? 

It’s true that I did give a financial conclusion in my book, but this is not the most important aspect. The only conclusion which counts historically is that regarding the confrontation of the two perpetual enemies, France and Britain. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the advantage always lay on the other side of the channel. This «second Hundred Years’ War» ended with the victory «money against Napoleon». Britain invested in the right places, and with huge sums (two to three times the amount of gold in the world at that time). But where did this money come from if Napoleon controlled all the trading centres that had been important pre-Revolutionary Europe (Paris, Genoa, Venice, Geneva, Amsterdam and Frankfurt)? I try to show how, as a result of the confidence of international merchants, industrialists, property owners, colonists, princes hostile to Napoleon, major banks (such as Barings) and speculators (such as the Rothschilds), Albion triumphed, and without perfidy.

In this book you show the importance of finance for the history of the period. Why do you think that traditional histories have ignored this question?

I don’t claim to be a precursor in this subject. Important books have preceded mine. If you think of the generalists, then there’s Jean Tulard, Louis Bergeron and Thierry Lentz who have all given appropriate importance to money matters. As for the specialist financial and economic historians, François Crouzet, Michel Bruguière, Guy Thuillier and Pierre-François Pinaud have all written works which cut a path through difficult terrain. On the question of British subsidies, the study by the American historian John M. Sherwig is similarly fundamental. I suppose what was missing was an overview of the question. Economic matters are at the forefront of public debate today. There’s no reason why it wasn’t the same in history, especially since the problems are largely the same. The key is to show the issues as clearly as possible. And this is what I have tried to do. It is up to readers to judge whether this “hidden war” which Napoleon waged either with or against money deserves to stand alongside the more famous military campaigns.

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