The coinage of the French revolution: the passage to a Constitutional monarchy (1789-92)
In 1789 France was theoretically an absolute monarchy, despite the growing challenge of regional aristocratic Parliaments to royal authority. This was still reflected in the coinage where an idealized portrait of Louis XVI and the crest of the Bourbon ruling family (three lilies) were surrounded by Latin inscriptions recalling the divine rights of the monarchy (King by the grace of god and under the rule of Christ and God) and its multiple titles (King of France and of Navarre which had been joined by personal union in 1589 by Henry IV). Those coins were minted in seventeen different French mints. The French monetary system consisted of gold, silver and copper coinage and since 1785 the gold-silver ratio had been set at 15.5 to 1, the first such change in 59 years. The system was complex, because it associated money of account * (livres divided in a duodecimal system like its British counterpart, with sols and deniers - £-s.d.), with a different set of real coins (gold Louis and double Louis, silver pieces in écus of six livres and its subdivisions, then copper pieces in sous and liards). We have here illustrated a silver écu minted in Perpignan in 1785 showing a grand portrait of a very young Louis,
The French revolution started as a fiscal crisis of the State, combined with a crisis of subsistence (increasing food prices , together with a shortage of currency because of hoarding and lack of trust in the capacity of the monarchy to repay its debts). It became an inflationary crisis from 1791 to 1796, through the massive increase of the assignats, which paid up to 90% of government spending, due to the collapse of tax receipts. The financial emergency led to the creation of creative parallel currencies, starting with the melting down of private silverware for the use of the mint, then of silver objects from churches and monasteries and eventually church bells, followed by the issue of Government paper money (assignats), local and private paper issues (billets de confiance), and private copper tokens (monnaies de confiance).
The constitution was adopted in 1791, defining the powers of the Assembly and the King within a constitutional monarchy. But a new coinage reflecting the revolutionary change in the theory and practice of government had already been decided by the National Assembly even before the adoption of the constitution in September.
After several open competitions between artists for the new monetary images, finally it was decided that all coins would carry the profile of Louis XVI, king of the French (and not anymore of France). The basis of authority had become, in the following order, “the Nation, Law and the King”. “The rule of law” (Règne de la loi) had replaced the rule of the absolutist representative of Christ in France. To complete the message, the Gregorian calendar year was accompanied by the year of liberty, as inaugurated by the citizens in 1789 at the storming of the Bastille.
Gold and silver coins also carried a winged allegory of the genius of France, engraving the Constitution on an altar, using as a tool the scepter of Reason, surmounted by an open eye. The allegory was completed by a rooster, symbol of vigilance, and by fasces, symbol of union and armed force. The franc had not yet been created, but new silver pieces were introduced, for 30 sous (1/4 of an écu) and 15 sous (1/8 of an écu, here illustrated with a piece from Lille in 1792).
Smaller denomination coins were in copper or in metal recycled from the bells of suppressed churches and religious institutions. Those coins carried a pike surmounted by a red beret, within fasces (without the Roman axe), surrounded by a civic crown of oak leaves. We have here a proper 12 dénier piece, minted in Paris in 1792, but also a very worn down version of the same, reduced to a simple shade of the benevolent smile of Louis, in yellow bell metal. This latter piece must have circulated constantly until such coins were formally withdrawn in 1855, and possibly even later as some apparently were still in use at the beginning of WWI.
Paper currency was expanding at the end of 1791, and given that the Constitution had legalized any form of economic activity that was not explicitly prohibited, private entrepreneurs entered the business of issuing monnaies de confiance in copper and low quality silver. For a few months the undisputed champions of this chaotic episode were the Monneron brothers, merchants in colonial goods, who encountered a colossal success in selling 9 million copper tokens to the French public in 1791-92. The Monneron products mixed high quality engravings from great artists and the opportunities for mass production offered by the new technologies of the British industrial revolution, still unavailable in France at the time. All pieces were minted by Boulton in his Soho factory (Birmingham), using Watt machinery. Those tokens were not currency but carried the promise of conversion of the 5 and 2 sou pieces into government paper assignats with legal tender.
A law was passed to prohibit private coinage in France in May 1792. The State reclaimed its monopoly and evicted competitors for seignorage income. The Monneron brothers went partially bankrupt, despite continuing for some time to pass their tokens off as “medals sold for 5 [or 2] sols”. Frenchmen preferred underweight private coinage to even more depreciated government banknotes, even if by 1792 the assignats had only lost some 40% of their nominal value, compared to their final 99.6% depreciation reached by 1796.
The Monneron coins helped spread on a much larger scale some key images of the revolution. First they used a popular design by Dupré for the celebration of the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, during the Fête de la féderation of 14 July 1790. It depicts the pledge of the oath to the constitution by the various bodies of the army, in front of the Goddess Minerva holding the Constitution, with the fallen feudal privileges at her feet, while flags floated bearing the motto La liberté ou la mort. Other Monneron 5 sol pieces recycled images of Hercules (representing despotism) attempting in vain to break the union of the people defending their freedom, symbolized by fasces. A 2 sol token presented a classical seated allegory of liberty, associated with the declaration of the rights of man, and similar in outlook to the Britannia figures minted by Boulton for other British customers. Similar images were included in other private pieces, like the silver 10 sols of 1792 by Lefevre, Lesage et Compagnie, here illustrated as well.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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