A nation of shopkeepers
What's the meaning of the phrase 'A nation of shopkeepers'?
This proverbial saying has a straightforward literal meaning, although it is intended to imply criticism of the English as a nation with little ambition.
What's the origin of the phrase 'A nation of shopkeepers'?
There's a veiled criticism in this saying, that the English are fit for little else, and it comes as no surprise that the two contenders who might claim coinage of it come from two nations with some disdain for the English - the Scots and the French.
The Scottish economist Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, 1776, 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. "
Napoleon I, who was familiar with Smith's work, is reported as later using a French version to dismiss England's preparedness for war against France:
"L'Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers."
Josiah Tucker, the Dean of Gloucester, preceded them both in 1766, although not with the precise text of the currently-used version of the phrase:
"And what is true of a shopkeeper is true of a shopkeeping nation."
See also: the List of Proverbs.