vrijdag, oktober 22, 2010

Riots in France

My current research leads me oft into unforeseen areas. Although one expects to find nothing but international politics and court gossip in diplomatic correspondence, the sources are considerably richer. As with almost every other societal sphere of the Ancien Régime, the theatre "high politics" is an intermixed entanglement of themes the modern reader tends to separate.

For instance, in 1720, commercial interests appear as the spearhead of the writers' focus, alongside dynastic and territorial interests. France and Britain just managed to reconcile Spain and the Emperor through the former's accession to the Treaty of the Quadruple Alliance, which pacified the Italian peninsula and the whole Mediterranean. All of a sudden, the economic foundations of both nation's stability faltered. After the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1715), in Britain as well as in France, public debt had been "resorbed" by the creation of colonial trade companies. Shareholders bought the debt back by their investment, bearing the entrepeneur's risk as the detainers of the corporation's capital. Speculation on the huge profits promised by American trade created a bubble. Debt came rolling back, not on the government, but directly on its wealthier subjects, potentially destroying economic life.

In Britain, the main "South Sea Bubble" victims were leading Whig politicians. The French disaster mainly touched the "parlementaires" (jurists acting as lawyer, attorney or judge in the country's sovereign court), but had wider implications as well. The Scottish minister John Law, instigator of the "Système" of the "Compagnie des Indes", had acquired the right to have his Bank serve as as the country's National Bank. He could thus issue paper money, with the Company's assets underwriting their value.

With stock prices tumbling down, hyperinflation paralysed the country's economic system. Philip of Orléans, Regent until Louis XV reached 13 years of age (1723), had to strike down the crisis with severe measures. They remind of the "Operation Gutt" the Belgian government held after the Second World War. Frenchmen holding stock in foreign overseas trade companies (e.g. the Habsburg Ostend Company) were obliged to withdraw their investments. Whoever owned banknotes worth over 500 livres tournois had to give them back to be destroyed.

The consequences were drastic. The "Compagnie" was virtually bankrupt, the Bank would inevitably have to close. While the former problem could be solved by assigning the "ferme" -or private exploitation of tax revenue-, the latter operation led to the fall of John Law.

The letter reproduced in this blogpost is a dispatch from Robert Sutton (Secretary to the British Embassy in Paris) to James Craggs, Secretary of State for the Southern Department ("Minister of Foreign Affairs") in Whitehall. An angry mob assaults the Palais Royal where the Regent holds his court, people are queueing up before Law's Bank, the army is sent in, the Parliament exiled to Pontoise. Somehow, it reminds us of protests in France today. Just change the Regent and the mob for Sarkozy and the CGT... Or Robert Sutton for the BBC's Gavin Hewitt.

Paris 26 July N.S. 1720
I have now the honour of your letters
of the 4th & 7th Inst to acknowledge _ I
omitted giving you an account by last post
of the tumult, which happened here on the
17th Current, because the Reports of it were so
various, that it was impossible of a sudden
to distinguish reality from rumours. I shall
now therefore give you a succinct but certain
relation of that matter _ Befor day
several small troops of people were observed
walking thrô the streets & complaining of
their miserable condition, and it being
market day there appeared a greater concourse
than usual before the Bank to receive money
for notes of 1 livres, which the guards
within having remarked, they put themselves
in order with their bayonets in the mouths
of their pieces _ at the opening of the Gates,
the first, that crowded in, being frighted to see
the guards in that posture, fell back, & those
who were behind, pressing forward at the
same time, about 15 people were either stifled
or trodden under foot & previously bruised.
Upon this the mob carried three of the dead
bodys to the Palais Royal with design to
shew them to the Duke Regent & move his
compassion & endeavoured to enter with
them into the Court of the Palace, but
were hindred by the Swiss guard. Monsieur le Blanc went to them at the Gate & appeased
them in a great measure by good words and
money wch he distributed to them. Thence
they went to the church of quinze vingt,
which is near the Palais Royal in the same
street, tot get the corps buried, but the curé
refused to allow it 'till a proces verbal should
be drawn up. While they were discoursing
upon the matter Mr Law chanced to come by, and
his coachman driving briskly with much ado
made his way thro' the crowd. But one of the
mob urging out, let us pursue the author
of our misfortunes, they ran after the coach in
such confusion, that mr law very narrowly
escaped into the Palais Royal. The Coach
being sent away some time after the Coachman
seeing a number of people still assembles before
the gates, cried out aloud, il faudroit faire
pendre une vingtaine de cette canaille, upon
which they fell apalling him with stones, wch
bruised him &  broke the foreglass of the
Coach. Thence they went to mr Law's
house, where, the Gates being shut, they
broke the Windows towards the street with
stones, but were driven away & dispersed by
the Guards before they cou'd do any more
mischief. One of those, who were stifled
had above 100 livres, &  the others about 80
livres a piece in silver money about them,
which made it plain that they made a trade
of getting specie for small notes, & were employ'd
by the agioteurs, who discounted bank notes
at about 30 pr cent upon the place of Vendome
___ The whole riot seems to have been
purely accidental & without any previous
concert, neither do I perceive that upon
enquiry any person of note is found to have
encouraged it or to have been privy to it,
tho' the general discontent is come to a
great height. __ The morning after the
tumult an arret was published to forbid the
people's assembling or gathering together
unlawfully in great companies & the guards
were doubled everywhere, as they still remain.
But no great search hath been made after
the principal actors in the Riot, nor hath
anybody, that I hear of, been punished on
that account ____ It was judged necessary
for Mr Law's security that he shou'd remain
in the Palais Royal, where he hitherto continued
in a small apartment of monsr coche, one of
the Regent's valets de Chambre ___ The Bank
hath been shut ever since the 17th but tis
given out it will be opened again very
suddenly to pay off notes of 100 livres.
The Parliament having of late
refused to register the several ordonnances
& arrêts made for redressing the affairs of the
Bank & East India Company, particularly
that which is here inclosed in manuscript,
and the first president, as well as some other
consellours having plainly told the Regent
that the only way to remedy the present disorders,
wou'd be to remove mr Law, and it being
further apprehended that by their example
of opposing the measures of the court, their
credit & discourses, they contributed much to
harden & confirm the people in their distrust,
and lastly there being plain grounds of suspicion
if not certain proof, that a good number of that
body were concerting measures to declare the
king major, the Regent thought fit to transfer
their session hence to Pontoise. Accordingly
on Saturday the 21th inst. About 3 a clock in the
morning a large detachment of the guards
seized upon the palais, & the same day lettres
de cachet were sent to each particular
president & counsellors ordering them to
remove to pontoise, which they obeyed with
great submission on Monday last ___ The
Prince of Conti, who was in a correspondence
with them, hath been forced to make his
submission & peace with the Regent to prevent
the Resolutions, which would otherwise have
been taken against him. When he Regent
had an explanation with him & reproved him
for his violent language in council against
the measures proposed for reestablishing the
publick credit, telling him he is a young man
& could not understand those matters, & asking
him if he was willing that mr law should
want on him to inform him of them, he
answered that he would have nothing to do
with mr law, but was willing to be instructed
by the chancellour. He afterwards desired
that his name might not be inserted in any
ordonnances or arrêts to which he had not
consented, which the Regent told him should
be granted &
The Duke Regent has caused some
troops to enter & quarter in the town &
others to advance as far as charenton to
the number of 8000 men, which keeps the
town in so great awe, that it has remained
very quiet without the least disturbance
since the bustle of the 17th Inst. Nevertheless
these measures & the arrêts come out since,
are so far from restoring credit by causing the
general distrust, that we are hitherto at a
morse pass & in greater streights than before,
in so much that it is really matter of wonder
how people subsist. The discount upon bank
notes for mony in the place of vendome is come
to 50 or 55 cent, & the notes will not pass
in payment for Goods without a greater loss
but many people will not receive them at any
rate, & there are several hands of provisions,
which cannot be procured without ready mony.
These circumstances breed such a confusion
as cannot easily be conceived by those, who do
not bear a share in it. The only thing which
affords some case & relief is the general
disposition rather to give credit than receive
payment in bank notes, which the debtor will
be sure to pay very dear for at long run.
All the arrets & ordonnances, that have
come out since my arrival here, have been so
far disregarded, that they have produced little
or no effect; nay they are grown into so great
neglect & contempt, thrô the distrust & obstinacy
of the people, hitherto invincible, that many do
not think it worth their while to buy them,
when they are cried in the streets. You will
find herewith those, which have been publish'd
since my last.
I have obtained the Brevet for the sale
of My Lord Gallaway's estate; and the English
artificers imprisoned at Roan have been
enlarged by vertue of an order, which mr law
delivered me & I dispatched down for that
Before I received their excellencies the
Lords Justices commands in your letter of
the 4th Inst relating to the protestants
condemned at Nimes, who are 19 in number,
I had spoken to M. de la Vrilliere, & Mr Law
about them. The Duke Regent had commanded
the pain of the Gallys, to which they were
condemned pursuant to the Ordonnances and
Declarations, into that of Transportation
into the Country of Mississipi. The latter
of those gentlemen assured me, he had all
along dissuaded the Regent from using
severity to the Reformed, whom he looked
on to be usefull subjects & well affected to
his Royal Highness; that he did not desire
any of them should be sent to the mississipi, &
would give his advice for releasing those
above mentioned. The Regent has been
so busy for some days past, that I have not
found an opportunity to discourse with
him upon this subject. As soon as I have
seen him, I shall acquaint you with his
The Duke of Liria eldest son to the
Duke of Berwick came to me 3 days ago
desiring me to ask your favour in procuring
him a Pass from the Lords Justices to go into
Ireland to see his grandmother who is very
rich &old. He is willing to see England in his
way, & says the dispositions his father & he
are in are so well known that he believes he
shall be liable to no suspicion.
I am with all imaginable respect
Your most Humble
& most obedient servant
Rob. Sutton