A nation of shopkeepers
This phrase is a description of England with rather negative connotations, suggesting that the inhabitants are small-minded. Surely not?
Be that as it may, is it true these days? Wandering along the high street of our local village, as I do from time to time, there is very little in the way of what I would call real shops. Yes, we have charity shops, hairdressers, nail bars, betting shops, cafes, estate agents, and solicitors but what may be termed as a real retail experience is limited to a supermarket and a newsagent. I’m sure the Frimley retail experience is replicated the country over.
Of course, this sad state of affairs, the consequence of the development of mega-superstores, on-line retailing and ever rising rates, was not always thus. Casting my mind back no more than twenty years ago, the high street had a wide range of shops. The heydays of small, specialist retail shops, though, is to be found earlier, reaching its acme in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Then a reverse in the fortunes of small shops set in, one, I’m afraid, is unlikely to be reversed.
I had originally thought that our phrase was originated by Napoleon Bonaparte but it just shows how wrong I can be. The plaudits, if that is what the remark deserves, belong to Josiah Tucker and Adam Smith.
Welshman Tucker was the Dean of Gloucester who, as well as attending to his religious duties, was a prolific pamphleteer, holding strong anti-American sentiments and hostile to Methodism, as well as being a supporter of free trade. In 1766, he wrote, “and what is true of a shopkeeper is true of a shopkeeping nation.” Interestingly, he is thought to have had a profound influence on the development of Adam Smith’s economic and political thought.
The Navigation Acts of 1651 gave a monopoly to merchants and shopkeepers in England over the produce that came from its colonies. Half way through his influential book, The Wealth of Nations, the Scottish economist, Adam Smith, focused his guns on the Acts, writing “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.”
The phrase was born, although its sense is hardly pejorative. This is where the French came in, possibly.
A View of Universal History by John Adams, published in 1794, attributes to the French revolutionary, Bertrand Barere de Viuezac, in a speech to the National Convention on June 11, 1794, the phrase “let Pitt then boast of his victory to his nation of shopkeepers.” Whether Napoleon, who was more of an army man than a politician at the time, was at the meeting to hear Barere is far from clear. Barry Edward O’Meara, Napoleon’s surgeon while he was in exile in St Helena, though attributes his patient as saying, “you were greatly offended with me for having called you a nation of shopkeepers.”
If O’Meara’s testimony is to be relied upon, it suggests that Boney did call England a nation of shopkeepers, that he did so earlier than his exile, that the English got to hear of it, and were miffed. But there is no other attestation that Napoleon uttered the phrase, “une nation de boutiquiers.”
Perhaps betraying the little English attitude that one Frenchman looks very much like another and that Napoleon was more (in)famous than Barrere, the insult was attributed to Boney, despite attempts to set the record straight. The Morning Post of May 28, 1832 was one such, fulminating that “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.” They ascribed its pejorative use to Barrere.
But, hey, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.