It’s not every day you pick up something 225 years old. I was sorting through a stack of “to list” items and came across these French notes that “Pop” had put on my desk. Pops told me they were French assignats. I was intrigued when I saw the date 1793, and had to do more research on these amazing historical notes.
A quick google search gave me the brief definition for me to start my research. Assignats were a type of monetary value used in 1789 -1796 during the French Revolution. These delicate notes were backed, not by gold or food, but by property. Interestingly these assignats were backed by properties formerly held by the Catholic Church – and therefore assignats became immediately controversial. Proponents argued that land was of more stable value than gold or silver, where the opponents saw the backed land as illegitimate seized property.
These acquired properties that became the backing for the assignats were renamed “biens nationaux” (national goods) and auctioned off. It was through these sales that the assignats were to be successfully used.
So what was the purpose for creating these assignats? During the beginning of the war the government had to find a way to pay the accruing national debt, but where was the money to come from? The Committee of Finance (reflecting back upon one of John Law’s monetary theories) came up with the idea of selling off the newly acquired church property to liquidate the national debt. In November 1789 it was agreed that the confiscated Church lands and their possessions would be sold off for the benefit of the state. Once approved the Committee of Finance lost little time in selling off its “religious” real estate. It was originally intended that these notes would be “assigned” to given land acquisitions, i.e. particular assignats would represent particular parcels of land. When the land was sold, the related assignats were to be destroyed.
However these sales came slowly and not soon enough to pay off even the current debts. The government had valued these Church lands around three billion livres, which surely would have paid their debts, but as it took time to sell the properties – income was slow to come in. Therefore the printing presses were increased to run at full capacity turning out as many new assignats as possible. Once the increase printing took place the “assigned” assignats concept that were originally intended for one particular parcel of land by 1791, had become obsolete.
These assignats, while fascinating, turned out to not work the way The Committee of Finance had intended. Several influences added to the failure of the assignats, one area that could be to blame was the act of counterfeiting by English sympathizers and then exported to France. “Bloom, in his book The Brotherhood of Money states that as early as 1790 London had no less than seventeen printing establishments with some 400 workmen actively engaged in counterfeiting French Revolution assignats.” However even some French officials abused their office, Monsieur Marigny lost his head after being found guilty of printing an unauthorized series of assignats for his own personal profit. All these factors combined with the overprinting led to a failed system and eventually “worthless” note.
So what became of these assignats?
In February 1976 all the tools used in the printing of assignats were brought to the Place Vendome where a crowd looking on. Plates and stamps were broke, reams of paper with millions of assignats were burned.
It is possible that some of these notes were used in French America (Canada, New Orleans, St. Louis, Detroit) By 1790 France was bankrupt, not until Napoleon introduced the new Franc in 1803 (same year as the US bought Louisiana) did the currency system see reform. If any of these assignats (whether backed by confiscated property, gold, or even good faith) were circulated in America they would be in well used condition. These incredible assignats of the 1790’s are a significant part of monetary history. Think about the hands that held on to these notes for the last 225 years, a piece of history not to be overlooked.