The coinage of the French Revolution: The creation of the Republic (1792-94)
Experiments and trials of new types of coinage and new forms of currency took place during the first three years of the French revolution. They assumed an even more spasmodic pace after the Republic was proclaimed on 22 September 1792, following the depositing of Louis XVI on 10 August 1792, and the election of a National Convention to replace the Assemblée législative.
During the first months of the Republic, moderate republicans (Girondins and the Plaine) still formed a de facto parliamentary majority. The costs of war were covered through the increase in the issue of paper assignats. The Convention adopted ever more frequent decrees concerning metallic currency, by then widely hoarded by ordinary citizens as well as by speculators. Reforms of coinage were often modified or replaced by new ones within a few days or weeks. This is not to say that the Convention was incompetent or took its duties lightly. The multiplicity of monetary proposals reflected an ongoing research for the best and innovative solution, assisted by the efforts of the Academy of Sciences. This led to a vote in October 1793 for a new currency, the silver Republicain, a decimal currency, based on the newly created metric system, weighing 10 grams of silver, divided in 10 decimes and 100 centimes, while a gold piece was also introduced, called the franc d’or. Even this system was suspended by decree the following day, and was never fully implemented, while older units continued to be minted for some time (a gold 24 livres piece and a silver écu of 6 livres).
Various images for the new republican coinage were developed tentatively by the independent united artists of Lyon and offered to the Convention. They proposed a portrait of the parliamentary leader Mirabeau (picture n. 1), who had died in 1791, but his popularity vanished in a fortnight. The secret archives of Louis XVI were found in the Tuileries in November 1792, including letters proving that Mirabeau was bribed by the King to advise him and to influence the Assembly in favour of the Monarchy. The Lyonnais engraver Galle also produced privately a magnificent female profile of freedom with floating hair and in the background a pike and a red cap. This project followed the letter of a decree of the Convention but was never implemented because of the hostility of the Finance Minister, the Girondin Clavière. He was more interested in developing paper money providing an immediate short term solution to the budgetary problems of the Republic. The image never made it to the French official currency but instead became the basis for the first patterns and strikes of US silver dollars and copper cents in 1792-94 and later.
In France other public and private trial strikes attempted in vain to extend to copper and bell metal coinage the image of the winged génie français, already used for gold and silver republican coins. Various patterns of seated allegories of liberty were also designed for that purpose. The Hercules token minted by the Monneron brothers in Birmingham was restyled and transformed into a positive figure. Instead of being presented as a symbol of absolutist power against whom the people resisted successfully, united in a bundle, Hercules became the powerful symbol of the people, using his force to break a scepter and a crown, symbols of despotism.
An emergency siege coinage was minted by the French garrison of Mainz (Mayence in French) resisting the Prussian offensive in 1793, recycling as symbols the fasci with red cap, already used by the constitutional monarchy, but now transformed into the republican symbol par excellence.
The period of rule of the Comité de Salut Public of the Convention was initially dominated by Danton, who founded the Revolutionary tribunal, until he was replaced in July 1793 by Robespierre , intensifying the Terreur.
The decree of 26 April 1793, when the Montagnards had gained the upper hand but had not yet eliminated the Girondins, produced a real new coinage in bell metal, fully representing the ideals of the revolution. Pieces of 2 sols, 1 sol and ½ sol were created and distributed to the public, all with the same design. On the obverse a table of the law carried an article from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, “Men are equal before the law”, under the open eye of revolutionary surveillance, flanked by a grapevine and bundle of grain, and surrounded by the indication of the new form of government, “République françoise”. On the reverse a scale surmounted by a red cap and surrounded by a civic crown of oak leaves symbolized the motto of the republic “Liberty, equality”, inscribed around the image. (“Fraternity” completed the motto of the Republic on a permanent basis only after the 1848 revolution and the creation of the second French Republic). The coins carried both the Christian date of 1793 and the indication of the Republican year (an 2). Republican liberty was counted starting from the proclamation of the republic in September 1792, abandoning the practice, followed in previous years, of considering that liberty had been achieved in 1789.
The rule of the Jacobins produced another circulating coin which testified to the spread of the revolutionary message. Following a monetary reform voted on 24 August 1793, under the Presidency of Robespierre, the coin had a nominal value of 5 décimes, that is five tenths of a new decimalized currency (half of the old livre, renamed franc two years later). The coin represented the regeneration of the French Nation, following the ceremony of 10 August 1793, the Festival of the Indivisibility of the Republic, on the first anniversary of the uprising of Paris, the overthrowing of monarchy and the conquest of equality. Nature, represented by a statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis on top of a fountain, dispensed from her breasts a regenerating water, offered to the members of the Convention and to representatives of the Départements by the officiating President of the Convention.
Ironically the coin was nicknamed “Robespierre”, but it represented instead the then President of the Convention, Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles, a brilliant aristocratic judge, one of the chief authors of the Constitution of 1793 and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a member of the Montagnard faction and close to Danton. Hérault de Seychelles’ term of office as President of the Convention (the position rotated every 15 days) gave him the honour of presiding over the ceremony, instead of Robespierre, who aspired to it. Robespierre considered Hérault an aristocrat of dubious loyalty and later succeeded in replacing him in the Comité de salut public and had him guillotined together with Danton and the indulgents in April 1794. When the 5 décimes coins representing Hérault started being minted in January 1794, he was already detained awaiting trial. Mintage and circulation was therefore relatively limited.
Once again history was proceeding faster than the mint masters and engravers, who were unable to keep up the pace of the Revolution, as had already been the case with Louis XVI and Mirabeau.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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