FIAT MONEY INFLATION IN FRANCE
How It Came, What It Brought, and How It Ended
Andrew Dickson White, LL.D., Ph.D., D.C.L.
As far back as just before our Civil War I made, in France and
elsewhere, a large collection of documents which had appeared during
the French Revolution, including newspapers, reports, speeches,
pamphlets, illustrative material of every sort, and, especially,
specimens of nearly all the Revolutionary issues of paper money,--from
notes of ten thousand _livres_ to those of one _sou_.
Upon this material, mainly, was based a course of lectures then given
to my students, first at the University of Michigan and later at
Cornell University, and among these lectures, one on "Paper Money
Inflation in France."
This was given simply because it showed one important line of facts in
that great struggle; and I recall, as if it were yesterday, my feeling
of regret at being obliged to bestow so much care and labor upon a
subject to all appearance so utterly devoid of practical value. I am
sure that it never occurred, either to my Michigan students or to
myself, that it could ever have any bearing on our own country. It
certainly never entered into our minds that any such folly as that
exhibited in those French documents of the eighteenth century could
ever find supporters in the United States of the nineteenth.
Some years later, when there began to be demands for large issues of
paper money in the United States, I wrought some of the facts thus
collected into a speech in the Senate of the State of New York,
showing the need of especial care in such dealings with financial
In 1876, during the "greenback craze," General Garfield and Mr. S. B.
Crittenden, both members of the House of Representatives at that time,
asked me to read a paper on the same general subject before an
audience of Senators and Representatives of both parties in
Washington. This I did, and also gave it later before an assemblage
of men of business at the Union League Club in New York.
Various editions of the paper were afterward published, among them,
two or three for campaign purposes, in the hope that they might be of
use in showing to what folly, cruelty, wrong and rain the passion for
"fiat money" may lead.
Other editions were issued at a later period, in view of the principle
involved in the proposed unlimited coinage of silver in the United
States, which was, at bottom, the idea which led to that fearful wreck
of public and private prosperity in France.
For these editions there was an added reason in the fact that the
utterances of sundry politicians at that time pointed clearly to
issues of paper money practically unlimited. These men were logical
enough to see that it would be inconsistent to stop at the unlimited
issue of silver dollars which cost really something when they could
issue unlimited paper dollars which virtually cost nothing.
In thus exhibiting facts which Bishop Butler would have recognized as
confirming his theory of "The Possible Insanity of States," it is but
just to acknowledge that the French proposal was vastly more sane than
that made in our own country. Those French issues of paper rested not
merely "on the will of a free people," but on one-third of the entire
landed property of France; on the very choicest of real property in
city and country--the confiscated estates of the Church and of the
fugitive aristocracy--and on the power to use the paper thus issued in
purchasing this real property at very low prices.
I have taken all pains to be exact, revising the whole paper in the
light of the most recent publications and giving my authority for
every important statement, and now leave the whole matter with my
At the request of a Canadian friend, who has expressed a strong wish
that this work be brought down to date, I have again restudied the
subject in the light of various works which have appeared since my
earlier research,--especially Levasseur's "Histoire des classes
ouvrières et de l'industrie en France,"--one of the really great
books of the twentieth century;--Dewarmin's superb "Cent Ans de
numismatique Française" and sundry special treatises. The result has
been that large additions have been made regarding some important
topics, and that various other parts of my earlier work have been made
more clear by better arrangement and supplementary information.
ANDREW D. WHITE.