Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution

Introduction: Money and Stuff

"Money is material, but it is not its matter that gives it its value. An analogy may be useful here: ballots are (or, at least, historically have been) pieces of paper that people mark with ink or in pencil. Ballots have a material form; even an “immaterial” electronic vote depends on the physical technology of touch pads and semiconductors. While voters sometimes worry that one or another technology may be more or less easily tampered with, none would say the value of voting resides in the material form of registering votes. Rather, it is the electorate’s willingness to abide by the vote’s announced outcome—voters’ trust in the electoral system—that gives those ballots their worth. When people doubt the system’s legitimacy, when they suspect fraud or corruption, the ballots lose value: voters stay away from the polls (they consider voting to be useless) and they find other ways (or not) to make their voices heard. Dropping ballots and ballot boxes into an Afghan village from an airplane is not, after all, the same as establishing long-term democratic institutions. The material support may bolster the institution but it is not equivalent to it. So, too, with money." (p. 5)

"This book is called Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution. “Stuff” in the title both gestures toward the significance of material culture for the book’s protagonists—many of whom hoped changes to the physical form of objects would enhance those objects’ value as currency—and marks those expectations as misplaced and founded in misrecognition. For value, as this book argues, is not in the things (which are, in fact, just stuff) but in ourselves. Value is a product of humans’ interactions with objects and with each other. Rather than being understood as such, however, it is instead habitually predicated of things themselves. (Hence in standard usage, “I value x” announces an idiosyncratic sentiment whereas “x is valuable” states a social truth in the form of an apparently objective fact.) Despite—or, perhaps, because of—its imprecision and lack of scholarly pedigree, the word “stuff” should remind us that the physical world both helps shape social and psychological processes and is itself shaped by them. Though unthinking materiality may be the first connotation of “stuff,” it is not the word’s only meaning: when Prospero says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” he refers to the immaterial residues of daily existence that fuel psychic life. These traces and perceptions, the objects and individuals we all have “in our heads,” rarely relate to their physical referents in a simple manner. After all, as objects, coins more closely resemble metal buttons than they do banknotes; yet, thanks to mental stuff, we keep the first in purses and pockets, the latter in sewing baskets." (p. 14)

  1. The Time of the Debt

"For those who wanted to cash their holdings quickly or make deals regardless of inherited tradition, immovable property’s notional permanence and productivity could be as much a curse as a blessing. A man might be able to transfer his share in his father’s estate to a sibling but there were far fewer circumstances in which he could sell it outright. Easy to borrow against but much more difficult to liquidate, immovable property affected how individuals acquired movables as well. The enormous role played by credit in the eighteenth-century French economy and the high value placed on “traditional,” immovable forms of property did not contradict each other (as scholars preoccupied with credit’s supposed modernity tend to assert). Instead, in a manner that only seems paradoxical, immobilized wealth and ready credit supported and even necessitated each other. The more immeubles one held, the more debt one could amass. Consumption in Old Regime France depended on illiquidity and the circulation of goods required the immovability of wealth." (p. 44)

"The extensive credit economy of the eighteenth century was not a 'bubble.' It was not fated to pop. Other scholars have been inclined to reach this conclusion, but it seems a failure of historical imagination to label the Old Regime credit economy “unsustainable.” True enough, after 1789-1793 it largely was not sustained, but that accident of history does not suffice to declare it already structurally unsound in 1782 or even in 1785. Sustainable, it may well have been. Shock proof, it was not. Far more stable than the proverbial house of cards or of straw, the eighteenth-century credit economy nonetheless required a certain temporal level-ness, a general comparability of past with present and present with future, in order to function smoothly. The dramatic political dislocations of spring and summer 1789 interrupted these patterns of expectation and left many profoundly uncertain. While the concatenating events and reactions we call, for convenience’s sake, “the outbreak of the French Revolution,” did not have bakers’ tally sticks, merchants’ account books, or bankers’ bills of exchange as their target, they affected them nonetheless. In the pervasive and intensifying political and social uncertainty of 1789-1790, the unthinkable happened. All bills came due at once." (p. 56)

2. The Money of Liberty

"This chapter suggests that as lawmakers faced the financial crisis of 1789-1790, they tried very hard not to do anything “revolutionary.” Their conscious impulses were, largely, conservative ones: many of their effectively most radical decisions were made with the aim of protecting property, maintaining commitments, and ensuring continuity. Where Tocqueville describes these men as unwittingly taking from the past its “customs, conventions, and modes of thought” even as they claimed to “obliterate their former selves,” I see almost the reverse happening. In the name of honoring debts, paying overdue bills, and minimizing conflict, many members of the National Assembly opted for policies that turned out to be far more disruptive than they expected or intended. We might think of their radicalization as a Möbius trajectory—moving in what seemed to be a single direction, they nonetheless arrived on the other side of the metaphorical strip." (pp. 58-59)

"The 'no bankruptcy' policy broke with past political expedients in the name of honoring past debts. It also, and in ways no one fully anticipated, made history much harder to leave behind. Burdensome at the best of times, this commitment to making payments on past loans created almost unbearable pressures in the summer and autumn of 1789, since it confirmed a major budget item at the very moment when most sources of revenue had almost completely disappeared. Moreover, few could honestly envision the latter being quickly reestablished for it was precisely the absolutist monarchy’s fiscal practices that were most sharply and roundly attacked—in the cahiers, in the press, and in the Assembly itself. While the regime’s symbols could be spiffed up and produced in greater quantities than ever before (the royal fleur-de-lys, for example, would appear on hundreds of yards of new wallpaper hung for the Legislative Assembly), the state’s revenue structures, most agreed, had to be scrapped completely." (p. 64)

"The assignats’ paradoxical, almost impossible-to-think temporality was that of the Revolution itself: something that had to be accepted with utmost seriousness for the time it endured, but that would be finite in duration (if potentially infinite in consequences). The Revolution could not be permanent. Its success, like that of the assignats, would be measured by how quickly it ended." (p. 84)

3. Making Money

"The manufacture was still laborious, however. Since making paper required large workshops and access to flowing water, the paper was produced outside Paris and then shipped into the capital to be printed, signed, and numbered. At every stage of the process, security was crucial and safeguarding the precious paper a crucial concern. One of the National Assembly’s commissioners therefore counted the finished sheets at the paper mill before they were loaded onto carts bound for the capital; when they arrived and were unloaded into the National Archives for safekeeping, they were counted again, as they were when they returned from one of several printing facilities located in Paris. Printed, the assignats at that stage had been “manufactured” but they had not been “issued” and they notionally could have stayed in the Archives indefinitely. In practice, of course, the Treasury continued to run desperately short of funds and so the pieces of paper were once again counted and then sent to the nearby Caisse de l’Extraordinaire (the Extraordinary Treasury, the office originally charged with making and receiving payments in assignats), to be signed, numbered, and embossed by hand. Then and only then, did they acquire the quality of “money.” Their production process guaranteed the assignats would not enter circulation overnight and their denominations (now from 50 to 2000 livres) meant they still could notbe used in many transactions. The assignats therefore flowed only slowly from the archives. At the same time, political uncertainty and cultural instability combined to aggravate the money shortage. In a period of low-grade but constant crisis, the scarcity of cash affected everyone from artists to entrepreneurs; it impinged on the building industry and the luxury trades alike. In March 1791, the Paris furrier and hatmaker, Beaujolin, tried to pay his dozens of workers “collectively” with four assignats of fifty livres each, but they returned the notes to him at the end of the day, saying “they will not take any more paper, because they cannot share it among themselves as they did money.” [A.N. F30/130] Goldsmiths, carpenters, and mantua-makers felt the problem with equal acuteness. Jean-Antoine Houdon, the King’s sculptor, employed half a dozen junior artists in his workshop, along with a stone-mason, a carpenter, and a day-laborer to do the heavy lifting. While their salaries were calculated on a daily basis, they all expected weekly wages (nine livres for the manual laborer, twenty-five for the artists) and none wanted a 300-livre assignat for which nobody would make change. [A.N. F30/117]" (pp. 110- 111)

4. Liberty of Money

"In trying to strengthen the economy, lawmakers weakened the state. Revolutionary patriotism combined with forms of laissez-faire economic policy to create a situation in which the needs of the nation were paramount while the nation’s money was nonetheless devalued and discredited. The latter derived not from paper’s inherent worthlessness—only a few years earlier in Spain, state-issued paper had circulated for more than its face value—nor simply from over issue. [Herr, Rural Change and Royal Finances in Spain] Rather, the Assemblies’ ideological choice of monetary deregulation at a time of cultural and social dislocation proved profoundly unsettling. Individuals’ heightened sense of uncertainty had calamitous effects on an economy largely based (as they all are) on trust, habit, and credit. A feedback loop of sorts was established: “freedom” of money disrupted economic life; that disruption made liberty and equality seem all the more elusive and desirable; supporting liberty meant defending the free trade in money which, in turn, led to further uncertainty and disruption. If the nation, as an abstract entity, was imagined giving credibility to its money, it could not do so in the absence of customary structures or effective governance.
The ever-widening gap between enunciated political norms and the actual functioning of daily life radicalized individuals in a way neither could have done on its own. Economic life had definitely changed: many tradesmen refused to sell on credit, the price of some goods had skyrocketed, and the market for luxury goods (from elaborate carriages to ornate fans and manmade pearls) had all but completely collapsed. Yet those most affected would not have made the demands they did had it not been for the simultaneous emergence of a new vocabulary of citizenship and legal equality...." (pp. 166-167)

5. Civil Wars in France

"Political decisions had profound economic effects and it was in the course of daily economic life that individuals formed some of their strongest political opinions. Money was the hinge holding the two together, the pivot around which politics and economics opened and closed onto each other. It was in this period an especially swollen and creaky joint. Any time someone made a purchase or a sale, whenever taxes were to be paid or collected, whenever a marriage contract was written or an estate was to be divided among heirs—on all these occasions and on thousands of others, the problem of what constituted “money” (and of who had the right to issue it) could easily arise. Even the down-and-out and the demi-monde could not avoid these concerns. The Parisian pickpocket whose latest haul consisted of billets de confiance from the Auvergne, the prostitute whose client had only large-denomination assignats, the beggar surprised to receive paper alms—they, too, would have found their day-to-day existences snagging on the sharp edges of a fractured monetary system." (p. 172)

6. The Revolution that Would Not End

"As the angry workers implied, a functioning currency is itself in many ways a “terrible” thing, something far removed from freely given consent or rationally formed judgement. Neither consciously chosen nor intellectually defensible, individuals’ faith in money depends on their feeling that others believe in it, as well. In those periods of open social-political conflict and cultural possibility that we call “revolutions,” individuals rightly doubt that others share their beliefs. Since some degree of tacit agreement is nonetheless necessary for functioning within society, they call on various powers—nature, government, a deity—to force agreement. While appealing to some natural basis of monetary value is less obviously coercive than arresting and executing political enemies, its effects in 1795-1796 (poverty, despair, and a great increase in the number of suicides) were equally disastrous. And while Dan Edelstein has recently argued that natural-rights theory specifically underpinned “the Terror,” consideration of monetary policy suggests a different relation between the French Revolution and ideologies based on nature. For it was only from April 1793 to autumn 1794 that positive laws mandating the circulation of paper and coin based on their face values alone replaced laissez-faire policies grounded in the idea of gold or silver’s intrinsic, “natural” worth. In other words, only during “the Terror” did the revolutionary state treat money as something it had the right to patrol and police, only during “the Terror” was money dimly recognized for the political-social convention it is. This recognition, history suggests, was terrible in itself, something from which most revolutionary elites fled as soon as it became politically feasible to re-embrace measures that had devastating consequences for urban workers, the state’s creditors, and the legitimacy of the Republic itself." (p. 236)

7. Taking the Old Regime out of Circulation

"Operating within the faux-materialist perspective that narrates the history of money as a difficult, perhaps misguided, transition from substance to abstraction (from metal to paper), the assignats’ introduction and eventual withdrawal provide logical-seeming chronological boundaries. In contrast, however, this book insists that paper, per se, was never the defining issue. Most transactions before the Revolution had, after all, been made on or in paper. Many chambers of commerce both opposed the issue of more assignats in September 1790 and actively supported local issuers of billets de confiance. When Parisians from the faubourgs marched into the Convention in Prairial, Year Three, they called not for a return to some mythical gold or silver standard but for laws enforcing the circulation of paper at face value. Paper was not the problem. Politics—the struggle for cultural legitimacy and economic power among individuals defined in regional, social, and ideological terms—politics was the problem. It was not a problem that vanished with Napoleon Bonaparte." (p. 249)

"As members of the political elite eagerly endorsed the withdrawal of existing small change and the minting of shiny brass centimes, they therefore betrayed their anxious realization that this effaced, “execrable,” and despised coinage actually circulated just like the wealth that facilitated the railroad schemes, the building booms, and the imperial expansion of the 1830s and 1840s. Money, after all, was movable wealth, it was meant to flow—what was to ensure that this “mess of grapeshot” would stay in the pockets of the poor and not be flung violently in the faces of the rich?" (p. 262)

Conclusion: Money and History

"This book uses the example of making and using money to suggest that the distinction of material from mental causes, of socio-economic from political or cultural history, of solid reality from intangible faith may occlude more than it reveals. And it uses historical examples to demonstrate that money has never been simply concrete or purely symbolic. When money “works,” when individuals and institutions accept monetized transactions—be they conducted with metal, paper, shells, or circuitry—then tacit social trust is made manifest. Trust is habit congealed through repetition into faith. Asked what they are doing, individuals might speak of a particular currency’s value but what they are really doing is relying on their own, barely conscious, expectations of how other human beings will react when presented with bills, coins, or credit cards. Functional money is a social and historical relation routinely perceived as an autonomous thing. In the political and social upheaval of France in 1789-1790 and in the civil wars that followed, many men and women quickly discovered they could no longer rely on their expectations about others’ reactions. Money for them stopped working. That the breakdown of market relations happened when and how it did made political ideals such as liberty and equality both all the more urgently appealing and all the more difficult to achieve." (p. 272)

All text copyright by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Some passages slightly adapted for clarity and concision.

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