The french revolution, the assignats, and the counterfeiters
Paper money can look back over a long and varied history, during which it hit a few stumbling blocks before finally adopting the prevalent, indispensable position it is afforded in modern society.
The first “banknotes” appear in China in the 11th century, where they are known as jiāozǐ (交子). They were developed for a number of very practical reasons such as security, weight, and the shortage of available ore.
Weighing down a caravan of goods with pound upon pound of gold as it travels immense distances doesn’t seem like the most prudent of solutions if you want to keep your head, your gold,...and your valuable cargo.
In the 17th century, banknotes begin their conquest of the world, with their usage extending as far as Japan, Genoa and Amsterdam, Sweden, England, and Scotland...They achieve such unforeseen success that they are heralded as a major innovation by the end of the same century.
In France, in 1715, on the orders of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, a Scottish economist named John Law bailed out the Trésor Royal by exchanging gold and silver coins for banknotes. A resounding success! The economy bounces back!...
However, by 1719, the demands for repayment start flooding in en masse and the Banque Royale established by Law goes bankrupt after proving unable to cope with demand.
It seems like the end of the line for banknotes in France…
Then, a few years later, paper money makes a comeback in France and launches...its revolution.
1 – The first assignats
"If it be just in the world of politics to pass judgment on the merit of a project based on the unrevealed views of those who oppose and those who support it, then we might be excused for proffering our opinion on the assignats. We must content ourselves with remarking that the party of aristocrats in the National Assembly roars as soon as the word “assignat” is mentioned, whereas the patriots see them as the only means of saving this nation."
Extract from the weekly newspaper “Révolutions de Paris”, Edition 62, dated September 11, 1790
It all begins with a speech.
In this case, that of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s finance minister, at the opening of the Estates-General on May 5, 1789.
And a revelation: That of the disastrous state of France’s finances. In his speech, Necker announces a “presumed” annual deficit of more than 56 million livres.
NB: It must be noted at this point that the sum announced is the subject of much debate. Charles Alexandre de Calonne claims a figure of 125 million along with a debt in excess of 600 million livres.
The solution put forward to save the day is a borrowing concept.
Following a proposal by the Deputy, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, seconded by Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau, the solution ultimately adopted is the issuing of a bond with a value based on that of the recently nationalized assets of the clergy.
Consequently, a first decree is voted through on December 21, 1789, ordering the issue of 400 million assignats with an interest rate of 5%, secured and repayable based on the auctioning of the biens nationaux (“national goods”: properties and assets recently seized from the Catholic Church).
With this concept, each purchase of an assignat signifies an advance for the State’s coffers. The Caisse de l’Extraordinaire issues the assignats and is responsible for collecting the sums from the sale of the national goods; the Caisse d’Escompte is responsible for repaying the assignats. Each assignat is destroyed as soon as it has been repaid.
FRANCE 200 Livres
1790, 1789-12-21, EF(40-45), G N° 6793, Lafaurie #123...
On August 10, 1790, 1,200,000 assignats are issued: 150,000 for 1,000 livres (6 series of 25,000 each); 400,000 for 800 livres (8 series of 50,000 each); and 650,000 for 200 livres (13 series of 50,000 each, numbered 1 to 50,000).
Each assignat is accompanied by 3 coupons, each corresponding to one year of interest.
The system seems to be well established and healthy as it is pegged to a real value, and the public services are thus financed, everything appears to be looking up.
2 – The demonetization of a king
"I believed I did recognize the queen, and glimpsing a man in the rear of the carriage on the left, I was struck by the resemblance of his features to the portrait on an assignat for 50 livres."
Excerpt from a contemporary account by Jean-Baptiste Drouet, postmaster of Sainte-Menehould, following Louis XVI’s Flight to Varennes with his family.
Louis XVI, as is befitting, is portrayed as per protocol on the first assignats referred to as “à face royale” (with a royal portrait).
However, the king is set to lose his head three times in three years:
The first time, figuratively, when he attempts to flee to Varennes on June 21, 1791. Immediate sanction. On September 21, 1792, the National Convention proclaims the First Republic.
As the very first assignats issued feature the king’s portrait, the “forced” royalist/republican marriage is doomed to end in divorce.
The second time, in reality, was on January 21, 1793. Louis XVI is taken to the guillotine in Place de la Révolution. Needless to say, he loses his head, but it retains its place on the first assignats issued.
However, there are now two types of assignat in circulation, of which 558 million royal ones...
Outside, the financial sector, ever partial to speculation, has more confidence in the royal assignats, and thus they rise in value by almost 10%. The National Convention takes umbrage with this and decrees the replacement on principle of the royal assignats without delay.
Louis XVI 0 – National Convention 1.
The king loses his head for the third time.
The royal assignats are demonetarized and new ones issued in their place. The public loses confidence, the assignat loses value, and private individuals continue to prefer the royal ones over the newly issued ones.
But this is just the start of France’s worries.
3 – The assignat printing press
"The danger lies in the depreciation of the currency. One day on the Rue du Temple an assignat of a hundred francs fell to the ground, and a passer-by, a man of the lower class, remarked, ‘It is not worthwhile to pick it up."
« Ninety-Three, The Public House of the Rue du Paon » – Victor Hugo
Between 1790 and 1793, the machine goes into overdrive and the printing press overheats.
The National Convention needs to cover a number of expenses, notably due to the war which is raging along the nation’s borders and the revolt in the Vendée following the execution of Louis XVI. The assignat seems the only plausible solution.
As assignats have now become legal tender and a bartering system in their own right, the State uses and abuses them shamelessly to cover its expenses and “forgets” to destroy them after their repayment. Within 3 years the value of the assignat depreciates by almost 60%.
To put this into perspective, from the 400 million initially intended, the State merrily proceeds to issue billion upon billion. On May 11, 1794, a report read to the National Convention documents...6 billion in circulation.
But that’s not all…
4 – The counterfeiters
« The captain, who had rapidly recovered his self-possession, had given orders to throw down the hatchway all that could abate the rage and check the mad onslaught of this infuriated gun; mattresses, hammocks (...), the bags of the crew, and bales of false assignats, with which the corvette was laden,—that infamous stratagem of English origin being considered a fair trick in war. »
« Ninety-Three, The Corvette “Claymore” » - Victor Hugo
As of 1791 and for the entire duration of the Reign of Terror, only the assignats are still of any value; no other money is recognized as legal tender.
Heads roll, freebies for everyone tomorrow, and finally coins are abolished altogether.
Following this, in parallel to the issuing of an immense quantity of money, another phenomenon soon arrives on the scene to exacerbate the situation: the assignats are easy to counterfeit and the production of forgeries becomes (if one might be so bold as to say it) common currency.
After starting out in other countries, it isn’t long before it takes hold within France. There are stories of print shops and counterfeiters cropping up everywhere, even within prisons!
Some of the assignats are blatantly poor copies, but others are practically indistinguishable from the genuine article, notably those originating from the Republic’s enemies in England, Germany, and even Switzerland. The other countries aimed to finance the war on the one hand but equally to “bet” against France’s finances by discrediting its currency.
Nevertheless, certain forgeries are so popular henceforth that people begin collecting them, for example this assignat for 200 livres from 1791, a certified copy...from the period:
Although the National Convention fights valiantly, developing and introducing a range of different and varied means (stereotype printing, secret features,...), the dissemination of forged assignats continues, notably due to the public’s lack of information with regard to the safeguarding means employed.
« There was another cause of discredit: A large number of counterfeit assignats in circulation. Print shops had been discovered in England, Holland, Germany, and Switzerland. The assignats were then sent to prisoners of war in France. Republican assignats were mixed with assignats signed Calonne and assignats in the name of the Count of Artois and Monsieur*; the counterfeiters were so carefree that they put Depérey’s name on the assignats as chief inspector, although Depérey claimed never to have signed a single one.
(...) Attempts were made to safeguard the public against the frauds. A number of pamphlets were published detailing ways of distinguishing the genuine articles from the counterfeit assignats, but they did little to re-establish trust, fueling instead the panic, as they showcased the wrongdoing and people never ceased talking about verification, stamps, and cancellation. »
« The Assignats During the French Revolution » - E. Levasseur
*Monsieur was the honorific title awarded to the eldest living brother of the king under the Ancien Régime. In this case, the Duke of Provence, who would later become Louis XVIII of France.
5 – Speculation during the revolutionary period
« The revolution was successful in its expedients. It alleviated this wide-spread misery by two dangerous measures,—the assignat and the maximum**; in other words, the lever and the fulcrum. France was actually saved by empiricism. The enemy, both in Coblentz and in London, speculated in assignats. »
« Ninety-Three, Cimourdain » - Victor Hugo
These two aspects are joined by speculation dealing the fatal blow to the declining value of the assignat. At that time, every self-respecting patriot saw speculation as criminal, politically and economically speaking, as it too contributed wholeheartedly to the citizens’ plummeting confidence in the revolutionary assignats.
In 1792, M. Loyseau wrote in his “Reflections on Speculation Concerning the Assignats”:
« Ils ont vu dans nos assignats une source de bénéfices immenses, et ils s’y sont livrés entièrement. Les autres ennemis de la révolution se sont coalisés avec eux, et en combinant leurs moyens respectifs, ils ont accaparé l’argent de manière à le rendre infiniment rare ; alors ils l’ont vendu beaucoup plus que les assignats qui le valent au moins ; car l’argent n’a qu’une valeur idéale, et tout au plus relative au besoin que nous avons de ce métal pour les arts ; il conte (sic) maintenant plus de 60 pour cent au-dessus de la valeur des assignats, fondés sur la plus immuable garantie. Qui empêche, qu’en suivant cette progression effrayante on aille jusqu’à les anéantir entièrement, comme les billets de Law qui n’avoient de base que l’espérance d’un bénéficiaire imaginaire. »
With the aim of combating this new plague, the sale of gold and silver outside of chambers of commerce is prohibited in summer 1795 and in winter 1795 the Directory closes the Bourse de Paris.But once again it is a waste of time, the speculation continues behind closed doors and all around...in public houses, in cafés, in gardens...there seems to be no solution to the problem.
Moreover, the speculation has now spread to just about everything: from precious metals to foodstuffs (bread, meat, coffee) and raw materials (soap, tobacco, textiles...).
Only the return of hard cash in summer 1796 will finally put an end to it.
**(General) Maximum: Decree on the limitation of inflation fixing a maximum price for foodstuffs and wages, which led to the ruin of merchants and small business owners. After numerous convictions, notably during the Reign of Terror, the decree was relatively poorly implemented. Two months after the execution of Robespierre, the Maximum was revised so as to render it fairer (Decree of Brumaire 22, Year III (November 12, 1794)).
6 - Gold and the law: keeping your head on your shoulders
Depreciation, abusive issuing of notes, counterfeit money… Under attack from all sides, confidence in the revolutionary money system is lost completely. As of 1793, we see an explosive increase in the number of decrees and laws penalizing refusal to accept assignats as payment, counterfeiting, speculation…
The penalties are severe.
The National Convention is drafting bills as fast as it can print assignats: en masse!
Picture: "Tables de la collection des lois et actes du gouvernement" (Gallica)
Establishing the Penalties for Refusal to Accept Assignats as Payment
of August 1, 1793.
The National Convention hereby decrees the following:
Any Frenchman convicted of having refused to accept assignats as payment or to have presented or received them at a loss of any kind, shall be condemned, for the first offense, to a fine of three thousand livres and six months’ imprisonment; in case of repeat offenders, the fine shall be doubled and the person condemned to twenty years in irons
7 - Final installment: the Directory, Napoleon, and the Banque de France
The end is nigh and the reaction imminent.
On Pluviôse 30, Year IV (February 19, 1796), the Directory finally solemnly signs the assignat’s death warrant and burns the printing presses, stamps, and other plates in a public bonfire in Place Vendôme.
And thus, barely six years after its birth, the assignat disappears from French streets once and for all. It was as short-lived as it was flamboyant and, even if it didn’t survive it, it can still be credited with allowing the Revolution to overcome the deficit France inherited from Louis XVI and finance the 1792 war against the royalists for a short time at least.
The assignats will be followed by mandats territoriaux (land-warrants) which will soon know the same fate...for almost exactly the same reasons.
In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte, now First Consul, cleans up France’s affairs and founds the Banque de France, which issues banknotes that will be payable upon demand, and to the bearer...
But that is another story...
NOMENCLATURE OF THE ISSUED ASSIGNATS
A distinction is made between four main types of assignat:
- Assignats à face royale, from 1790 to 1792
- Face values: 25, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, 200, 300, 500, 1,000, and 2,000 livres
- Assignats for livres, from 1790 to 1794
- Face values: 5, 10, 25, 50, 125, 250, 400, and 500 livres
- Assignats for sous and sols, from 1792 to 1793
- Face values: 10 sous, 15, 25, and 50 sols
- Assignats for francs from 1795
- Face values: 100, 750, 1,000, 2,000, and 10,000 francs
Data sources :
- « La crise financière française de 1789 – 1799 » by Andrew Dickson White
- « Catalogue général des assignats français » - www.assignat.fr
- « Dictionnaire encyclopédique, Volume 11 » by Philippe Le Bas
- « Considérations sur l'agiotage des assignats » by M. Loyseau (1792)