Cart 0

The French Revolution


Some seventy years after the death of John Law the French revolutionaries got hold of a copy of his tract Money and Trade Considered.  John Law had been a swashbuckling financial genius who had killed his adversary in a duel over a woman, escaped to France, met the Duke of Orleans in a gambling den and so impressed the Duke that he was hired to solve the financial problems of France.

But the substance of his tract was that money should be based on property and land, and not on gold and silver.  The Revolutionary National Assembly had just confiscated all Church property and decided it would be a good idea to implement the theory of land money.  Incidentally, John Law, a Scotsman himself, had during his lifetime tried to get Scotland to adopt his ideas.  Fortunately for Scotland, his ideas were rejected; Scotland had just suffered badly from the South Sea Bubble burst and did not want to engage in another adventure.

The Revolution lasted from 1789 to 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte took control of France.  The National Assembly created the ‘Caisse de l’Extraordinaire’ which issued the first ‘assignats’ on 16 and 17 April, 1789.  These were interest-bearing notes and were for high denominations of 200, 300 and 1,000 Livres.  The first issue of assignats was for 4,000 million livres.  Had the assignat system stopped there, as was strongly advocated by Mirabeau, there is no reason why the notes should not have been successful, but further issues brought the total up to 3,750  million.  Depreciation followed.  Protective legislation was passed to support the assignat by giving as much as twenty-five years’ imprisonment for traders who differentiated between goods sold for coin as against assignats.  These severe measures were only relaxed after the fall of Robespierre and the advent of Napoleon.

These early assignats are clear evidence that the revolutionaries did not at first contemplate the destruction of the monarchy.  They bore the portrait of King Louis XVI and are known to collectors as ‘Face Royales’.  Until 24 October, 1792 many of the notes bear the inscription “La Loi et La Roi” (The Law and the King).

The high denominations had little effect on the working population, whose average wage was 25 sous a day (20 sous = 1 livre).  These assignats were intended to increase the money supply so that the lands, the “Domaines Nationaux” – the title which appeared on the assignats – could be purchased, as unsold they were of little use to the revolutionaries.

By June 1794 a total of 8,000 million livres had been issued of which only 2,464 million had been redeemed by the Treasury.  By 1796 issues brought the total to 45,500 million and they became virtually worthless.

At a time when the ‘Louis d’or’ (similar to an English guinea) sold on the black market for 15,000 livres and paper money had depreciated nine per cent, the Minister of Finance, Ramel Nogaret, proposed the creation of a new banknote to replace the assignats and thus save France.  These notes were in francs and were the ‘territorial mandats’.  On 18 March, 1796, the new notes were issued – 2,400 million of them – which the government proposed to exchange at the rate of 30 livres assignats against 1 franc territorial mandate.  The predictable result was that they collapsed even more rapidly than had the assignats.  On the 4 February, 1797 in a symbolic ceremony in the Place de la Concorde, notes were burned and printing plates broken up in public.

From a collecting point of view it means that many eighteenth-century assignats which are over 200 years old can be collected in perfect condition for a few pounds.  This is because at the end of the Revolution stacks of sheets of assignats were in bank storerooms.  Time had made the edges of the piles black with age, but inside the notes remained in the condition they were the day they were printed.