In honor of the 24th Annual Burkhardt Lecture, Dean Maggiotto introduced the speaker, Dr. Rebecca Spang, Professor of History at Indiana University – Bloomington. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Harvard and completed both her Master’s and PhD at Cornell. She presented, “History, Money, and the French Revolution.”
Dr. Spang began by making a distinction between the origin of the monetary system at the beginning of the French Revolution and the relationship between money and what was going on during the revolution. Prior to the revolution, paper money was used more as an IOU than what we consider today to be money. It was an agreement between an individual and a businessman for future payment of an agreed upon amount. One of the influences of the French Revolution was that all currency was switched to a single paper system. This was different from an individual’s agreement with a businessman and made the use of paper money mandatory. The assignat became the first form of paper money to be used during the revolution. The value of the assignat was based on the value of church property throughout the country which was nationalized for this purpose. There was also still the idea that paper money would eventually be returned to the state and was not considered a permanent solution at the time.
One problem with the assignat was that it was only available in large denominations. Localities became responsible for creating their own currency, called billets de confiance, if they wanted to use smaller denominations. When Napoleon came to power and began gathering soldiers, the locally issued billets de confiance were not accepted throughout France. The billets de confiance often had seals, official stamps, or other types of validation that were only recognized at the local level. A universal and mandatory paper money was introduced to France during the French Revolution, but there were issues to be addressed before it could become an effective form of currency.