Unseen Hand in British History - Ian D. Colvin

X. The Hand of a King


The policy which we call Mercantilism in England, in France has been called Colbertism. But we might trace its development long before Colbert. There was a curious conflict between Henri IV and his Minister, Sully, over the protection of manufactures. Sully inclined to the view that manufactures did not suit France, which was an agricultural country, and that artisans did not make good soldiers. It was true that the realm was impoverished by buying luxuries from Italy; but the best way to stop that evil was by sumptuary laws and the forbidding of luxuries to the people who sent abroad for them. Henri IV replied that he would rather fight three pitched battles with Spain than engage with his bourgeois, "et sur tout leurs femmes et leur filles": "Pour contenter les sujets sans appauvrir le royaume, il fallait manufacturer soi-meme les etoffes strangeres riches et cheres."

At that time the manufacturing city of Tours was demanding protection, the notables of Rouen approved; but the merchants of Lyons, "qui vivaient de leur douane et non de la fabrique, etaient naturellement pour le systeme de la porte ouverte." The King took the side of the manufacturers and forbade the importation of silks and cloths of gold and silver. Like Simon de Montfort in England, he had begun the campaign at the wrong end: prohibition without manufactures was impossible. The interdict imposed in January 1599 was withdrawn in the following year. Nevertheless Henri IV persisted in his policy of protection, renewed his interdicts from time to time, and gave grants and monopolies to manufacturers. We see the first-fruits of an economic conflict in disputes between the merchants of Rouen and the Merchant Adventurers over the importation of English cloth.

Richelieu continued this policy of protection. "Son ambition," says Lavisse, "est celle des protectionistes de tous les temps; il faut vendre le plus possible aux etrangers et leur acheter le moins possible." "Pourvu," he said, "que nous S9achions nous bien aider des avantages que la nature nous a procures, nous tirerons l'argent de ceux qui voudront avoir nos marchandises, qui leur sont si necessaires, et nous ne nous chargerons point beaucoup de leurs denrees, qui nous sont si peu utiles."

He protected French manufactures, gave privileges to French merchants, and sought to create a mercantile marine by navigation laws. "Mais le roi avait trop d'affaires. H menageait les Anglais et les Hollandais et n'osait pas appliquer center eux son 'Acte de Navigation.'"

Nevertheless the French went ahead with their manufactures. Paris was already producing "des plus belles et plus riches tapisseries du monde"; Saint Quentin made toiles as fine and beautiful as the Dutch; Amiens serges and camelots; Paris, Tours, Lyons, and Montpellier velvets, satins, taffetas, and other silks as good as any in Europe; but above all Tours made the most wonderful "pannes and velvets, employing in her silk manufacture no less than 20,000 workmen."

But Colbert he was the great Protectionist. He protected every industry: "Colbert a demande a toute la France: Qui veut des manufactures?"

"It is necessary," he wrote in 1663, "to assist with protection and with money all the cloth manufactures of the realm," and not only cloth, but iron, steel, soap, linen, candles, cottons, lead, copper everything. If Germany produced certain metals consumed in France, then he sent spies to debauch workers of Nuremberg to come into France and teach them the arts of smelting. He even offered protection to the most delightful and necessary manufacture of all; he encouraged the youth of France to marry young by fiscal devices and took steps to discourage the number of celibates in the Church. He organized companies of manufacturers, regulated and improved the societies of merchants, reduced and regularized, although he did not succeed in abolishing, the provincial customs, regulated the manufacture of cloth, restored the navigation laws and founded naval colleges and shipbuilding yards.

Marc-Antoine Giustinian, the Venetian Ambassador in France between 1665 and 1668, reports to his Government that Colbert, desiring to make France superior to all other countries in wealth and industry, merchandise and arts, was acclimatizing the industries of other countries. This was true in particular of England. He had just given some workmen brought from England a palace for a workshop. The English tanning industry was also engaging his attention, and he was trying to produce in France Dutch cloth, butter, and cheese.

And Jan de Witt, in his Interest of Holland, notes the success of this protective policy. France, he says, has become a manufacturing country owing to the "new and very high imposition laid upon all foreign imported goods, and especially manufactures." Then France must have a world-commerce, so companies were organized a Company of the North for the commerce of the Baltic; of the West Indies for Africa and America; of the Levant; and of the East Indies. The St. Lawrence and the Mississippi, the West Indies, Madagascar, India, Assam all were embraced in a French world-policy, based upon a certain logical plan with its center a powerful and energetic State.

This growing strength of France obtruded itself gradually and disagreeably both upon England and Holland. Thus, for example, on May 1, 1638, the Merchant Adventurers petition the Privy Council on their wrongs in France. "They complain that they are not allowed to import into France serges, perpetuanas, Spanish cloths, and other sorts of English draperies, that their goods are searched by the dealers in French draperies, and illegally taxed," etc. And so we might trace a growing quarrel as the power of Spain declines and the power of France grows. Gardiner, always absorbed in the religious side of the quarrel, tells us how in 1651 Cromwell was "hankering after" a policy hostile to France.

"It is undeniable," adds this learned but innocent historian, "that by advanced Puritans the policy of agreement with Spain was at that time held to be the Protestant policy; probably because Spain, though still remaining the home of the Inquisition, had no Protestants left to persecute, whilst Protestants were still numerous in France."

The French, as a matter of fact, were trying to barter recognition of the Commonwealth for redress of the grievances of French merchants. In 1654 Cardenas, the Spanish Ambassador, prevailed upon the Council to prevent the relief of Dunkirk, and on September 4 Blake destroyed Vendome's fleet on the way from Calais. But, as we have seen, Cromwell's "private interest" led him away from this mercantile policy, and when Blake attacked the Plate Fleet of Spain the Protector forfeited the affections of the City of London.

The policy of France was equally obnoxious to the United Netherlands. In 1659 Fouquet established a Navigation Act giving French tonnage a protection of 50 sous a ton. In 1667 Colbert went a long step forward: "Les droits sur les marchandises manufacturees, sur les tissus, les laines, les dentelles de la Hollande et de l'Angleterre furent doubles."

It is not surprising that this policy raised both in Holland and England "les plus vives reclamations." In a few years the French customs on English manufactures had been tripled. In Holland the second tariff produced "uneveritable revolution commerciale." The Dutch made the most eloquent speeches to Louis XIV on the advantages of Free Trade. Divine Providence, "la felicite de sa creature," "une amitie et une societe universelles," were all introduced into the argument: "il cut besoin de cette correspondance universelle et de ce debit mutuel que nous appelons commerce, il est facile de comprendre que ceux qui facilitent ledit commerce facilitent aussi les moyens qui rendent lespeuples heureux et contents: el qu'au contraire" etc. etc.

This Free Trade cant not succeeding, the Dutch proceeded to make their own people happy by entirely prohibiting the importation of French wines and brandies and putting a very heavy duty on French silks.

Now in the war that followed it was the interest of England to side with Holland and Spain; but France offered England a return to the customs of 1664, besides Walcheren and the mouths of the Scheldt, while she gave to Charles a pension of 3,000,000 francs a year. The policy of Louis was to support the mistress of a king; in this he showed himself contemptuous both of our morality and our constitution: he should have supported the wife of a minister.

However that may be, French gifts and blandishments seduced our English Court from our national policy which, as we have seen, is to attack the strongest power.

When Colbert died France was well established in the woolen trade, with no less than 50,000 looms, and her silk manufactures were valued at fifty millions of francs. The State revenues had increased by twenty-eight millions of francs. When he began his labors Colbert estimated that the Dutch employed 16,000 vessels out of the 20,000 which were then sufficient for the trade of the world, and that they carried almost the entire oversea trade of France. But Colbert's policy produced French ships for French cargoes, and at the expense chiefly of Holland, France grew strong in her fisheries, her mercantile marine, and her navy.

Now in her national policy, as we have seen, France trod heavily on English toes. Both in the trade literature and the debates of Parliament we can trace the growing animosity.

In 1675, according to Anderson, "the English House of Commons, being much out of humor with the conduct of their King, Charles the Second, and that of his bad Ministers, acting so much in favor of France, and so diametrically opposite to England's true interests; and observing the immense consumption of French wares of all kinds in England; and, on the other hand, how little of English merchandise was taken off by France (now ardently pursuing the improvement of her own woolen, silk, and linen manufactures), that House entered into an examination of the general balance of trade between England and France; and found that England was annually, for some time past, above one million sterling losers by her trade with France."

This national competition grew more fierce and furious as time went on. The French tempted our weavers across the Channel; Parliament enacted the most hideous penalties against this emigration and the sale of trade secrets. France imported our wool, we forbade its export; France smuggled it across.

"France," says Sir Josiah Child, "lays an imposition of 50 or 60 percent, upon our drapery. The Swedish laws amount to a prohibition of the English from sending their own manufactures to Sweden in English shipping." Sweden was at that time supposed to be wholly under the influence of France.

The cloth trade petitioned Parliament; Parliament petitioned the King. But the King was known to be the pensioner of Prance, and both his activities and his inactivities were suspect. A pamphlet said to have been written by the direction of Arlington gives vent to the popular feeling:

"That not above three years ago, France was hardly able to send forth twenty ships of war, and now they have sixty large ones, ready furnished and well armed; and do apply all their industries and pains in every part to augment the number. Could the ghost of Queen Elizabeth return back into the world again she would justly reproach the Ministers of State in England for having abandoned her good maxims, by tamely suffering before our eyes a maritime power to increase, which she so diligently kept down throughout the whole course of her reign. Whereas you (a Minister of State is indicated) are so far from opposing the growth of this power that you rather seem to desire England should facilitate the way to make it grow the faster, and to render it yet more formidable than it is, by the acquisition of the seaports which, in conclusion, must infallibly bring France to be mistress of the commerce of the Indies. All the world knows the vast quantity of money and arms which the French have accumulated to that end alone, out of the richest to purses of that kingdom. Our power and greatness consist principally in the matter of commerce; I therefore conclude, by an unerring consequence, that commerce 'ought' to be the chief object of our jealousy, and that we are as bound to be as tender of the conservation of this benefit as of the apples of our eyes."

The French were not only laying a great design of world-empire: they were making themselves supreme in Europe. By 1677 they had made so much progress in the conquest of the Spanish Netherlands that Parliament pressed the King to an alliance with the Dutch. ". . . His secret engagements with the French Bang," says Anderson bitterly, "were too strong to incline hin> seriously to break with him."

It is of all things the most disturbing to a nation to suspect its Government of treachery to the national interest. But Charles was astute: his chief desire being to remain I had almost said in office he knew how to yield before the breaking-point came. By 1678 things had got so far that Parliament passed an Act "for raising money by a poll, etc., to enable His Majesty to enter into an actual war against the French King; and for prohibiting, for three years to come, and to the end of the subsequent session of Parliament, the importation into England of all French commodities whatever."

"It was indeed," says Anderson with a tang quite comically English, "more than time for England to interpose, and save the almost expiring liberties of Europe, while at the same time she put some stop to an inundation of French wines, brandies, silks, linen, paper, salt, and an innumerable variety of frippery, millinery and haberdashery wares, toys, etc., which prohibition and that of the wear of East India manufactures brought the general balance greatly in our favor in the course of twenty years. This law was passed much against King Charles's inclination, who was a constant pensioner of France, and a determined foe equally to the religion and liberties of his own kingdom. But the ferment of the people of England was at this time so great, by the discovery of the Popish plot, etc., that he was obliged to comply."

James II was a better man than his brother; but unfortunately his spiritual home was in France. And France, despite the profound mistake of revoking the Edict of Nantes, was extending her power in all directions. She had humbled Genoa and made herself mistress of the trade of the Mediterranean; she had taken most of the Spanish Netherlands and thus possessed the most skilled industrialists of Europe; she had taken Metz and Strasburg and commanded the Rhine; she had fortified the famous ports of Toulon and Brest, and was said to have more than sixty thousand sailors as many as England and Holland put together and a hundred ships of the line. She was establishing herself in Newfoundland, North America, and India, and although the French Government had overstrained the national resources by war and extravagance the weakness was as yet hardly visible. And thus it came about that the friendship of James II for France was fatal to his crown and dynasty.

"King James the Second," says Anderson, "in the very beginning of his reign, having great occasion for the friendship of the French King, for enabling him to accomplish the two grand points he had in view, viz. the establishing of Popery and of despotic power in England, got an act of Parliament passed, cap. vi, absolutely to repeal the said prohibition. Whereupon ensued an inundation of French commodities, to the value of about four millions sterling, within the compass of less than three years' time; whereby all the evils formerly complained of were renewed; so that the nation would have been soon beggared, had it not been for the happy revolution in the year 1688; when all commerce with France was effectually barred."

Thus James had attached himself to a Power which the most powerful interests in England looked upon as an enemy. He followed, in fact, the policy so often fatal to English Governments, of leaning upon a foreign Power against his own subjects. And when we look upon the history of this unfortunate line we find that all its monarchs made the same fatal error. James favored Spain when Spain was still powerful and dangerous; Charles borrowed from Holland when the Dutch were shutting us out of the Baltic and the Spice Islands; James II found a sacred friendship in France when the French were fighting us with tariffs and were in almost open war with us at sea, in the Hudson Bay, and in India. It was not a question of constitutional liberty, for Elizabeth had done as she liked with her Parliament; nor was it a quarrel altogether of religion, for religion was more a color than a motive. Where the Stuarts failed was in devotion to the national interest: in their foreign policy they pursued aims personal and dynastic, which left them out of touch or brought them into conflict with the organized trade of the country. They never sufficiently perceived that a national policy must be founded upon the national interest.