One of Europe's most storied leaders, Napoleon I is remembered for his dramatic victories as the leader of France, conquering large swathes of Europe until his ultimate downfall following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Despite his military prowess, Napoleon was never able to conquer the United Kingdom, his archrival to the north. As Europe's most successful economic power and the nation with the most powerful navy in the world, Britain relied on its trade with foreign nations to fuel its own economy. In an effort to undermine his rival, Napoleon initiated the Continental System, a wide-ranging system of tariffs and embargoes against Britain. The Continental System ultimately had a far more negative impact on France, however, much to the chagrin of its illustrious emperor.
Origins of the Continental System
Hostilities between France and Britain had boiled for many centuries, but the French Revolution, with its antimonarchical republican values and extreme violence, initiated a new low in relations between those two nations. Fearful of republican ideology spreading to its shores, Britain was staunchly opposed to the French Revolution from its inception, and as the French Army began its conquest of Europe, the island nation sought allies in its struggle against France.
By 1799, Napoleon had used the support of the military to overthrow the French Directory and effectively take full control of the nation; the French coup d'état of 1799 established the French Consulate as the new government of France, with Napoleon assuming the ultimate executive position of first consul. Meanwhile, French armies successfully conquered the Papal States, Sardinia-Piedmont, and Switzerland, and even occupied Ottoman Egypt for three years. Such conservative forces on the European continent as Austria and Russia shared Britain's fears and quaked at the thought of French invasion. They knew that the French would not only bring occupying armies to their lands, but also displace their monarchies and establish republics, and that was something the ruling elite could not accept. With a successful general like Napoleon now at the helm of the government, the issue appeared more urgent than ever before.
To counteract the threat of French invasion, monarchies across Europe banded together in a series of coalitions. In 1798, Austria, Britain, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, and Russia formed the Second Coalition, but their infighting prevented any effective concerted movement to stop the French war machine. By 1805, France had firmly established itself as an imperial power, having gained control over large portions of the Continent. In response, Britain and Russia, later joined by Austria and Sweden, formed the Third Coalition. This was a crucial move for the British; Napoleon had begun to amass troops in Boulogne—on the northern coast of France—in 1803 in preparation for invading Britain. The powerful British Royal Navy was able to prevent French invasion through a blockade, however, and with the decisive British naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, Napoleon realized he would not be able to launch a successful land invasion of Britain.
A New Strategy
Defeated, but not demoralized, Napoleon plotted a new way to attack the British. If he could not take them on militarily, the French emperor (Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor of the First French Empire in May 1804) determined to attack their economy. Calling the British "a nation of shopkeepers" in a derogatory tone, Napoleon nevertheless knew that the Industrial Revolution, along with the riches flooding into the country from the burgeoning British Empire, had made the United Kingdom the most powerful economic power in the world. Because the nation was an island, it needed trade of its finished goods to buy enough raw materials and supplies for its population to live at a level...