Nation of shopkeepers

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The phrase "a nation of Shopkeepers" ("une nation de boutiquiers") is a phrase made famous by Napoleon to describe the United Kingdom.

"L'Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers."

—Napoleon I

This phrase can be translated from French to English as:

"England is a nation of shopkeepers."

—Napoleon I

Although the description was often seen as a disparaging one, Napoleon claimed that it was not intended to be so, but was merely a statement of the obvious fact that British power, unlike that of its main continental rivals, derived from commerce and not from the extent of its lands nor its population. [1]

The phrase, however, did not originate with Napoleon. It first appears in The Wealth of Nations (1776) by Adam Smith, who wrote:

"To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers."

—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations[2]

Smith is also quoted as saying that Britain was "a nation that is governed by shopkeepers", which is how he put it in the first (1776) edition. It is unlikely that either Adam Smith or Napoleon used the phrase to describe that class of small retailers who would not even have had the franchise.

The phrase may have been part of standard 18th century economic dialogue. It has been suggested that Napoleon may have heard it during a meeting of the French Convention on 11 June 1794, when Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac quoted Smith's phrase.[3]

The phrase has also been attributed to Samuel Adams, but this is disputed; Josiah Tucker, Dean of Gloucester, produced a slightly different phrase in 1766:

And what is true of a shopkeeper is true of a shopkeeping nation.

Napoleon was correct in seeing the United Kingdom as essentially a commercial and naval rather than a land based power, but during his lifetime it was fast being transformed from a mercantile to an industrial nation, a process which laid the basis for a century of British hegemony after the Battle of Waterloo. Although the UK had half the population of France during the Napoleonic Wars, there was a higher per capita income and, consequently, a greater tax base, necessary to conduct a prolonged war of attrition. The United Kingdom's economy and its ability to finance the war against Napoleon also benefitted from the Bank of England's issuance of inconvertible banknotes, a "temporary" measure which remained from the 1790s until 1821.[4]


  1. ^
  2. ^ The Wealth of Nations, Glasgow edition, 1976), Book IV, section vii. c.
  3. ^ Ward, Philip (1978). Dictionary of Common Fallacies. New York: Oleander Press. p. 172. 
  4. ^ George Lefebvre, Napoleon (London edition, 2009), pp. 43-53