Nation of shopkeepers

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The Woman Shopkeeper, British School, c. 1790-1800

The phrase "a nation of shopkeepers" is an expression commonly used to refer to England or the United Kingdom. It is often attributed to Napoleon, though this claim is disputed and earlier occurrences exist.

Attribution to Napoleon[edit]

There is reason to doubt that Napoleon ever used it. No contemporaneous French newspaper mentions that he did. The phrase was first used in an offensive sense by the French revolutionary Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac on 11 June 1794 in a speech to the National Convention: "Let Pitt then boast of his victory to his nation of shopkeepers".[1] Later, during the Napoleonic wars, the British press mentioned the phrase, attributing it either to "the French" or to Napoleon himself.[2]

A later, explicit source is Barry Edward O'Meara, who was surgeon to Napoleon during his exile in St. Helena.[3] If O'Meara is to be believed, Napoleon said:

Your meddling in continental affairs, and trying to make yourselves a great military power, instead of attending to the sea and commerce, will yet be your ruin as a nation. You were greatly offended with me for having called you a nation of shopkeepers. Had I meant by this, that you were a nation of cowards, you would have had reason to be displeased; even though it were ridiculous and contrary to historical facts; but no such thing was ever intended. I meant that you were a nation of merchants, and that all your great riches, and your grand resources arose from commerce, which is true. What else constitutes the riches of England. It is not extent of territory, or a numerous population. It is not mines of gold, silver, or diamonds. Moreover, no man of sense ought to be ashamed of being called a shopkeeper. But your prince and your ministers appear to wish to change altogether l'esprit of the English, and to render you another nation; to make you ashamed of your shops and your trade, which have made you what you are, and to sigh after nobility, titles and crosses; in fact to assimilate you with the French... You are all nobility now, instead of the plain old Englishmen.

There may be grounds to doubt the veracity of this account.[4]

The supposed French original as uttered by Napoleon (une nation de boutiquiers) is frequently cited, but it has no attestation. O'Meara routinely conversed with Napoleon in Italian, not French.[5] There is no other source.

After the war English newspapers sometimes tried to correct the impression. For example the following article appeared in the Morning Post of 28 May 1832:[6]

ENGLAND A NATION OF SHOPKEEPERS This complimentary term, for so we must consider it, as applied to a Nation which has derived its principal prosperity from its commercial greatness, has been erroneously attributed, from time to time, to all the leading Revolutionists of France. To our astonishment we now find it applied exclusively to BONAPARTE. Than this nothing can be further from the fact. NAPOLEON was scarcely known at the time, he being merely an Officer of inferior rank, totally unconnected with politics. The occasion on which that splenetic, but at the same time, complimentary observation was made was that of the ever-memorable battle of the 1st of June. The oration delivered on that occasion was by M. BARRERE [sic], in which, after describing our beautiful country as one "on which the sun scarce designs to shed its light", he described England as a nation of shopkeepers.

Historical context[edit]

Napoleon would have been 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[citation needed], 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.[7]

Origin of phrase[edit]

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.[8] But this presupposes that Napoleon himself, as opposed to Barère alone, used the phrase.

In any case the phrase did not originate with Napoleon, or even Barère. It first appears in a non-pejorative sense 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[9]

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 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.

Benjamin Franklin used a similar idea about Holland in a letter to Charles W. F. Dumas on 6 August 1781:

Some writer, I forget who, says that Holland is no longer a nation but a great shop and I begin to think it has no other principles or sentiments but those of a shopkeeper.


Though the original supposed usage by Napoleon was meant to be disparaging,[10] the term has since been used positively in the British press. Margaret Thatcher used the phrase in an interview to the press on 18 February 1975:[11]

We used to be famous for two things—as a nation of shopkeepers and as the workshop of the world. One is trade, the other is industry. We must get back our reputation.

William Makepeace Thackeray turned the phrase back onto the continent in his classic Vanity Fair (novel), first published in serial form in Punch (magazine) in 1847-8, albeit satirizing the Belgians rather than the French. In the Chapter XXVIII, in which the Duke of Wellington's army lands in Ostend in the lead up to the Battle of Waterloo, Thackeray states that

it may be said as a rule, that every Englishman in the Duke of Wellington's army paid his way. The remembrance of such a fact surely becomes a nation of shopkeepers.


  1. ^ A.M. Adams, ‘’A View of Universal History’’ (London, 1795), vol III, 312.
  2. ^ Notes and Queries, September 1865, page 191 [1], accessed 10 June 2015.
  3. ^ Barry Edward O'Meara, Napoleon in Exile, (London, 1822) vol 2, page 52.
  4. ^ 1. While some contemporaries regarded O’Meara as a reliable source (e.g. ‘’The Edinburgh Review’’, vol 37, 1822, p.165), others thought he was duplicitous (e.g. Colburn’s ‘’United Service Magazine’’, 1843, Part III, 371: "he could not look an honest man directly in the face"). He was dismissed from the Royal Navy for duplicity (Young, Norwood (1915). Napoleon in Exile: St Helena (1815-1821). Vol. II. Philadelphia: John C. Wi ston. pp. 107–8.). 2. The political sentiments attributed to Napoleon are typical of an 1820s British Radical [which O’Meara was], but not of an Emperor of the French. 3. If Napoleon had really meant at the time to describe the English as a rich nation of merchants it is rather difficult to see why he would have used the expression "shopkeepers", denoting petty retailers. 4. The lack of an attested contemporaneous French source.
  5. ^ Bradley, Chester D.; Bradley, Miriam D. (1952). "Craven and O'meara: Medical Boswells to Jefferson Davis and Napoleon Bonaparte". Bulletin of the History of Medicine. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 26 (2): 141–152. JSTOR 44443688. PMID 14916285., p.142; "[T]hough Napoleon generally conversed in Italian with me, as I spoke the language with considerable fluency, from having resided several years in that classical country, whenever he became animated, he always broke out into French, and also whenever he was at a loss for a word": O'Meara, Barry E. (1822). Napoleon in Exile. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Carey & Lea., p.22 n.
  6. ^ Page 3
  7. ^ George Lefebvre, Napoleon (London edition, 2009), pp. 43-53
  8. ^ Ward, Philip (1978). Dictionary of Common Fallacies. New York: Oleander Press. p. 172.
  9. ^ The Wealth of Nations, Glasgow edition, 1976), Book IV, section vii. c.
  10. ^ "shopkeepers". Angleterre…a people which he [Napoleon] so disdainfully used to call a nation of shop-keepers
  11. ^ Remarks after speaking to National Chamber of Trade, Margaret Thatcher Foundation