Napoleon's Land Grab

Following his disastrous Russian campaign, the emperor of France needed money quickly. The desperate measures he took are revealed by Noelle Plack.

Desperate: Napoleon, portrayed following his abdication in 1814 by Delaroche. Vente noticeOf all the Napoleonic anniversaries to be commemorated in the next few years, one that is very likely to be forgotten is his land grab of 1813. A relatively obscure law, passed on March 20th that  year, allowed the French state to seize and sell off plots of village common land. It is no coincidence that this legislation appeared a few months after the disastrous retreat from Moscow. The empire’s financial affairs were deteriorating as more and more funds were being consumed by military spending. It is estimated that 60 per cent of the 1807 budget was spent on Napoleon’s military exploits, but by 1813 the figure was 80 per cent. The Russian campaign alone had a price tag of 700 million francs. With this tremendous strain on the nation’s finances it is not surprising that the deficit increased each year. In 1811 the shortfall was a modest 6.5 million francs; by 1813 France had a 149 million franc deficit.

The law of March 20th came into being against this bleak financial background. Napoleon needed to raise vast amounts of cash relatively quickly but refused to borrow funds or print paper money, things that both the Bourbon monarchy and French Revolutionaries had done with dire consequences. The idea to sell off communal plots was appealing because the lands would be sold at auction in the theoretically neutral sphere of the market.

The actual text of the law, contained in only six articles, explained how the procedure would work. Essentially the state would seize all communally held lands that were leased to individuals; these lands would then be sold at auction with a guide price of 20 times their annual revenue. Villages would receive a fixed sum of five per cent of the ceded lands’ value from the government in return for their lost assets. Confident of success, Napoleon’s ministers projected that the sales would produce a profit of 370 million francs.

The effects of Napoleon’s seizure and sale of common land are not well known. Historians admit that the results are difficult to trace, as officials in the 19th century tried to erase this unsavoury operation from collective memory. Archival evidence is scattered and incomplete, as the monthly sales reports sent to the ministry of finance were burned during the Paris Commune of 1871. The documents that do survive in the departmental archives are usually found in the Q series, largely devoted to the sales of biens nationaux, the nationalised Church and émigré lands seized during the French Revolution. This combination of factors has meant that the 1813 land sales are rarely discussed in the standard histories of Napoleon.

Thanks to the French historian Nadine Vivier we now have an idea of the overall impact of this operation. The law was on the books until April 26th, 1816 and sales took place during three distinct phases. As early as April 1814 the government announced that 124 million francs’ worth of land had been ceded and just over half of that had been sold. Further research reveals that only 22 million francs of the sales were actually paid for. There is debate over how much land was sold in the end, but the best calculation puts the figure between 60 and 90 million francs, far short of the government’s original estimate.

These sales were not equally distributed across France. Villages in the northeast and south of the country had the most land seized and sold under this law.  Departments in western regions lost hardly any land during these years. This presents a division between two Frances: a western zone, where inhabitants were deeply attached to the collective usage of their commons; and the north, east and south, where collective dependence upon common land was less profound and leasing of individual plots was more widespread. In the Moselle, for example, in the east, over three million francs were produced as 600 plots of land were sold. Common land in the village of Briey, in Meurthe-et-Moselle, diminished from 80 hectares to just 12 under this law.

Who purchased the lands? The 1813 Napoleonic law has often been compared to the revolutionary biens nationaux because of the way the lands were seized and sold at auction and also because the urban bourgeoisie seem to have acquired a lot of it. In large measure it was the wealthy middle classes who benefited from this law, as they purchased plots to increase their landholdings. This often proved traumatic for the poorer peasants, who were usually expropriated from the plots they were leasing from their communes, though in some instances the peasant occupiers were able to buy the lands they were leasing. In the village of Fourques in the Gard region, for example, local peasants purchased the majority of the 317 plots sold. However, the most likely scenario was that peasant occupiers were outbid by those higher up on the social scale.

Not only were the land sales under the 1813 law distressful for the peasantry, the loss of revenue produced by leased out plots of common land was very damaging to a community’s budget. In theory the government was meant to pay the communes a fixed annual sum of five per cent of the ceded lands’ value, but in reality many villages never saw a centime. The department of the Gard, for example, received only 16 per cent of the annual sum due in 1814 and none of it by 1820. Even when the annual sum was paid in full, it paled in comparison with the potential revenue communes could have earned from leasing their lands.

It was, then, the bourgeoisie who benefitted most from this law, as they were able to secure the lion’s share of land seized and put up for sale.  These purchases were made for several reasons – not only to make capital investments in property, but also to show support for a regime on the brink of financial ruin. Thus, Napoleon’s land grab of 1813 resembles the sales of the revolutionary biens nationaux in more ways than one. Not only did it increase the land ownership of the bourgeoisie, but it also attached them to a regime in desperate need of legitimacy.

Noelle Plack is Reader in French History at Newham University, Birmingham and is the author of Common Land, Wine and the French Revolution (Ashgate, 2009)