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Excerpts from the original article:
FIAT MONEY INFLATION IN FRANCE
How It Came, What It Brought, and How It Ended
Andrew Dickson White
Yet each of these issues, great or small, was but as a drop of cold water to a parched throat. Although there was already a rise in prices which showed that the amount needed for circulation had been exceeded, the cry for “more circulating medium” was continued. The pressure for new issues became stronger and stronger. The Parisian populace and the Jacobin Club were especially loud in their demands for them; and, a few months later, on June 19, 1791, with few speeches, in a silence very ominous, a new issue was made of six hundred millions more;--less than nine months after the former great issue, with its solemn pledges to keep down the amount in circulation. With the exception of a few thoughtful men, the whole nation again sang paeans.
In this comparative ease of new issues is seen the action of a law in finance as certain as the working of a similar law in natural philosophy. If a material body fall from a height its velocity is accelerated, by a well-known law, in a constantly increasing ratio: so in issues
During the various stages of this debate there cropped up a doctrine old and ominous. It was the same which appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century in the United States during what became known as the “greenback craze” and the free “silver craze.” In France it had been refuted, a generation before the Revolution, by Turgot, just as brilliantly as it was met a hundred years later in the United States by James A. Garfield and his compeers. This was the doctrine that all currency, whether gold, paper, leather or any other material, derives its efficiency from the official stamp it bears, and that, this being the case, a government may relieve itself of its debts and make itself rich and prosperous simply by means of a printing press:--fundamentally the theory which underlay the later American doctrine of “fiat money.”
There came mutterings and finally speeches in the Jacobin Club, in the Assembly and in newspaper articles and pamphlets throughout the country, taking this doctrine for granted. These could hardly affect thinking men who bore in mind the calamities brought upon the whole people, and especially upon the poorer classes, by this same theory as put in practice by John Law, or as refuted by Turgot, but it served to swell the popular chorus in favor of the issue of more assignats and plenty of them.
The great majority of Frenchmen now became desperate optimists, declaring that inflation is prosperity. Throughout France there came temporary good feeling. The nation was becoming inebriated with paper money. The good feeling was that of a drunkard just after his draught; and it is to be noted as a simple historical fact, corresponding to a physiological fact, that, as draughts of paper money came faster the successive periods of good feeling grew shorter.
Various bad signs began to appear. Immediately after each new issue came a marked depreciation; curious it is to note the general reluctance to assign the right reason. The decline in the purchasing power of paper money was in obedience to the simplest laws in economics, but France had now gone beyond her thoughtful statesmen and taken refuge in unwavering optimism, giving any explanation of the new difficulties rather than the right one. A leading member of the Assembly insisted, in an elaborate speech, that the cause of depreciation was simply the want of knowledge and of confidence among the rural population and he suggested means of enlightening them. La Rochefoucauld proposed to issue an address to the people showing the goodness of the currency and the absurdity of preferring coin. The address was unanimously voted. As well might they have attempted to show that a beverage made by mixing a quart of wine and two quarts of water would possess all the exhilarating quality of the original, undiluted liquid.
Attention was aroused by another menacing fact;--specie disappeared more and more. The explanations of this fact also displayed wonderful ingenuity in finding false reasons and in evading the true one. A very common explanation was indicated in Prudhomme’s newspaper, “Les RĂ©volutions de Paris,” of January 17, 1791, which declared that coin “will keep rising until the people shall have hanged a broker.” Another popular theory was that the Bourbon family were, in some mysterious way, drawing off all solid money to the chief centers of their intrigues in Germany. Comic and, at the same time, pathetic, were evidences of the wide-spread idea that if only a goodly number of people engaged in trade were hanged, the par value of the assignats would be restored.
Still another favorite idea was that British emissaries were in the midst of the people, instilling notions hostile to paper. Great efforts were made to find these emissaries and more than one innocent person experienced the popular wrath under the supposition that he was engaged in raising gold and depressing paper. Even Talleyrand, shrewd as he was, insisted that the cause was simply that the imports were too great and the exports too little. As well might he explain that fact that, when oil is mingled with water, water sinks to the bottom, by saying that this is because the oil rises to the top. This disappearance of specie was the result of a natural law as simple and as sure in its action as gravitation; the superior currency had been withdrawn because an inferior currency could be used. Some efforts were made to remedy this. In the municipality of Quilleboeuf a considerable amount in specie having been found in the possession of a citizen, the money was seized and sent to the Assembly. The people of that town treated this hoarded gold as the result of unpatriotic wickedness or madness, instead of seeing that it was but the sure result of a law working in every land and time, when certain causes are present. Marat followed out this theory by asserting that death was the proper penalty for persons who thus hid their money.
Still another troublesome fact began now to appear. Though paper money had increased in amount, prosperity had steadily diminished. In spite of all the paper issues, commercial activity grew more and more spasmodic. Enterprise was chilled and business became more and more stagnant. Mirabeau, in his speech which decided the second great issue of paper, had insisted that, though bankers might suffer, this issue would be of great service to manufacturers and restore prosperity to them and their workmen. The latter were for a time deluded, but were at last rudely awakened from this delusion. The plenty of currency had at first stimulated production and created a great activity in manufactures, but soon the markets were glutted and the demand was diminished. In spite of the wretched financial policy of years gone by, and especially in spite of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, by which religious bigotry had driven out of the kingdom thousands of its most skillful Protestant workmen, the manufactures of France had before the Revolution come into full bloom. In the finer woolen goods, in silk and satin fabrics of all sorts, in choice pottery and porcelain, in manufactures of iron, steel, and copper, they had again taken their old leading place upon the Continent. All the previous changes had, at the worst, done no more than to inflict a momentary check on this highly developed system of manufactures. But what the bigotry of Louis XIV and the shiftlessness of Louis XV could not do in nearly a century, was accomplished by this tampering with the currency in a few months. One manufactory after another stopped. At one town, LodĂ¨ve, five thousand workmen were discharged from the cloth manufactories. Every cause except the right one was assigned for this. Heavy duties were put upon foreign goods; everything that tariffs and custom-houses could do was done. Still the great manufactories of Normandy were closed, those of the rest of the kingdom speedily followed, and vast numbers of workmen in all parts of the country were thrown out of employment. Nor was this the case with the home demand alone. The foreign demand, which at first had been stimulated, soon fell off. In no way can this be better stated than by one of the most thoughtful historians of modern times, who says, “It is true that at first the assignats gave the same impulse to business in the city as in the country, but the apparent improvement had no firm foundation, even in the towns. Whenever a great quantity of paper money is suddenly issued we invariably see a rapid increase of trade. The great quantity of the circulating medium sets in motion all the energies of commerce and manufactures; capital for investment is more easily found than usual and trade perpetually receives fresh nutriment. If this paper represents real credit, founded upon order and legal security, from which it can derive a firm and lasting value, such a movement may be the starting point of a great and widely-extended prosperity, as, for instance, a splendid improvement in English agriculture was undoubtedly owing to the emancipation of the country bankers. If on the contrary, the new paper is of precarious value, as was clearly seen to be the case with the French assignats as early as February, 1791, it can confer no lasting benefits. For the moment, perhaps, business receives an impulse, all the more violent because every one endeavors to invest his doubtful paper in buildings, machines and goods, which, under all circumstances, retain some intrinsic value. Such a movement was witnessed in France in 1791, and from every quarter there came satisfactory reports of the activity of manufactures.”
“But, for the moment, the French manufacturers derived great advantage from this state of things. As their products could be so cheaply paid for, orders poured in from foreign countries to such a degree that it was often difficult for the manufacturers to satisfy their customers. It is easy to see that prosperity of this kind must very soon find its limit. . . . When a further fall in the assignats took place this prosperity would necessarily collapse, and be succeeded by a crisis all the more destructive the more deeply men had engaged in speculation under the influence of the first favorable prospects.”
Thus came a collapse in manufacturing and commerce, just as it had come previously in France: just as it came at various periods in Austria, Russia, America, and in all countries where men have tried to build up prosperity on irredeemable paper.
All this breaking down of the manufactures and commerce of the nation made fearful inroads on the greater fortunes; but upon the lesser, and upon the little properties of the masses of the nation who relied upon their labor, it pressed with intense severity. The capitalist could put his surplus paper money into the government lands and await results; but the men who needed their money from day to day suffered the worst of the misery. Still another difficulty appeared. There had come a complete uncertainty as to the future. Long before the close of 1791 no one knew whether a piece of paper money representing a hundred livres would, a month later, have a purchasing power of ninety or eighty or sixty livres. The result was that capitalists feared to embark their means in business. Enterprise received a mortal blow. Demand for labor was still further diminished; and here came a new cause of calamity: for this uncertainty withered all far-reaching undertakings. The business of France dwindled into a mere living from hand to mouth. This state of things, too, while it bore heavily upon the moneyed classes, was still more ruinous to those in moderate and, most of all, to those in straitened circumstances. With the masses of the people, the purchase of every article of supply became a speculation—a speculation in which the professional speculator had an immense advantage over the ordinary buyer. Says the most brilliant of apologists for French revolutionary statesmanship, “Commerce was dead; betting took its place.”
Nor was there any compensating advantage to the mercantile classes. The merchant was forced to add to his ordinary profit a sum sufficient to cover probable or possible fluctuations in value, and while prices of products thus went higher, the wages of labor, owing to the number of workmen who were thrown out of employment, went lower.
But these evils, though great, were small compared to those far more deep-seated signs of disease which now showed themselves throughout the country. One of these was the obliteration of thrift from the minds of the French people. The French are naturally thrifty; but, with such masses of money and with such uncertainty as to its future value, the ordinary motives for saving and care diminished, And a loose luxury spread throughout the country. A still worse outgrowth was the increase of speculation and gambling. With the plethora of paper currency in 1791 appeared the first evidences of that cancerous disease which always follows large issues of irredeemable currency,--a disease more permanently injurious to a nation than war, pestilence or famine. For at the great metropolitan centers grew a luxurious, speculative, stock-gambling body, which, like a malignant tumor, absorbed into itself the strength of the nation and sent out its cancerous fibres to the remotest hamlets. At these city centers abundant wealth seemed to be piled up: in the country at, large there grew a dislike of steady labor and a contempt for moderate gains and simple living. In a pamphlet published in May, 1791, we see how, in regard to this also, public opinion was blinded. The author calls attention to the increase of gambling in values of all sorts in these words: “What shall I say of the stock-jobbing, as frightful as it is scandalous, which goes on in Paris under the very eyes of our legislators,--a most terrible evil, yet, under the present circumstances,--necessary?” The author also speaks of these stock-gamblers as using the most insidious means to influence public opinion in favor of their measures; and then proposes, seriously, a change in various matters of detail, thinking that this would prove a sufficient remedy for an evil which had its roots far down in the whole system of irredeemable currency. As well might a physician prescribe a pimple wash for a diseased liver.
Now began to be seen more plainly some of the many ways in which an inflation policy robs the working class. As these knots of plotting schemers at the city centers were becoming bloated with sudden wealth, the producing classes of the country, though having in their possession more and more currency, grew lean. In the schemes and speculations put forth by stock-jobbers and stimulated by the printing of more currency, multitudes of small fortunes were absorbed and lost while a few swollen fortunes were rapidly aggregated in the larger cities. This crippled a large class in the country districts, which had employed a great number of workmen.
In the leading French cities now arose a luxury and license which was a greater evil even than the plundering which ministered to it. In the country the gambling spirit spread more and more. Says the same thoughtful historian whom I have already quoted: “What a prospect for a country when its rural population was changed into a great band of gamblers!”
Nor was this reckless and corrupt spirit confined to business men; it began to break out in official circles, and public men who, a few years before, had been thought above all possibility of taint, became luxurious, reckless, cynical and finally corrupt. Mirabeau, himself, who, not many months previous, had risked imprisonment and even death to establish constitutional government, was now—at this very time—secretly receiving heavy bribes. When, at the downfall of the monarchy a few years later, the famous iron chest of the Tuileries was opened, there were found evidences that, in this carnival of inflation and corruption, he had been a regularly paid servant of the Royal court. The artful plundering of the people at large was bad enough, but worse still was this growing corruption in official and legislative circles. Out of the speculating and gambling of the inflation period grew luxury, and, out of this, corruption. It grew as naturally as a fungus on a muck heap. It was first felt in business operations, but soon began to be seen in the legislative body and in journalism. Mirabeau was, by no means, the only example. Such members of the legislative body as Jullien of Toulouse, Delaunay of Angers, Fabre d’Eglantine and their disciples, were among the most noxious of those conspiring by legislative action to raise and depress securities for stock-jobbing purposes. Bribery of legislators followed as a matter of course, Delaunay, Jullien and Chabot accepted a bribe of five hundred thousand livres for aiding legislation calculated to promote the purposes of certain stock-jobbers. It is some comfort to know that nearly all concerned were guillotined for it.
It is true that the number of these corrupt legislators was small, far less than alarmists led the nation to suppose, but there were enough to cause wide-spread distrust, cynicism and want of faith in any patriotism or any virtue.
Even worse than this was the breaking down of the morals of the country at large, resulting from the sudden building up of ostentatious wealth in a few large cities, and from the gambling, speculative spirit spreading from these to the small towns and rural districts. From this was developed an even more disgraceful result,--the decay of a true sense of national good faith. The patriotism which the fear of the absolute monarchy, the machinations of the court party, the menaces of the army and the threats of all monarchical Europe had been unable to shake was gradually disintegrated by this same speculative, stock-jobbing habit fostered by the superabundant currency. At the outset, in the discussions preliminary to the first issue of paper money, Mirabeau and others who had favored it had insisted that patriotism as well as an enlightened self-interest, would lead the people to keep up the value of paper money. The very opposite of this was now revealed, for there appeared, as another outgrowth of this disease, what has always been seen under similar circumstances. It is a result of previous, and a cause of future evils. This outgrowth was a vast debtor class in the nation, directly interested in the depreciation of the currency in which they were to pay their debts. The nucleus of this class was formed by those who had purchased the church lands from the government. Only small payments down had been required and the remainder was to be paid in deferred installments: an indebtedness of a multitude of people had thus been created to the amount of hundreds of millions. This body of debtors soon saw, of course, that their interest was to depreciate the currency in which their debts were to be paid; and these were speedily joined by a far more influential class;--by that class whose speculative tendencies had been stimulated by the abundance of paper money, and who had gone largely into debt, looking for a rise in nominal values. Soon demagogues of the viler sort in the political clubs began to pander to it; a little later important persons in this debtor class were to be found intriguing in the Assembly—first in its seats and later in more conspicuous places of public trust. Before long, the debtor class became a powerful body extending through all ranks of society. From the stock-gambler who sat in the Assembly to the small land speculator in the rural districts; from the sleek inventor of canards on the Paris Exchange to the lying stock-jobber in the market town, all pressed vigorously for new issues of paper; all were apparently able to demonstrate to the people that in new issues of paper lay the only chance for national prosperity.
This great debtor class, relying on the multitude who could be approached by superficial arguments, soon gained control. Strange as it might seem to those who have not watched the same causes at work at a previous period in France and at various times in other countries, while every issue of paper money really made matters worse, a superstition gained ground among the people at large that, if only enough paper money were issued and were more cunningly handled the poor would be made rich. Henceforth, all opposition was futile. In December, 1791, a report was made in the Legislative Assembly in favor of yet another great issue of three hundred millions more of paper money. In regard to this report Cambon said that more money was needed but asked, “Will you, in a moment when stock-jobbing is carried on with such fury, give it new power by adding so much more to the circulation?” But such high considerations were now little regarded. Dorisy declared, “There is not enough money yet in circulation; if there were more the sales of national lands would be more rapid.” And the official report of his speech states that these words were applauded.
Dorisy then went on to insist that the government lands were worth at least thirty-five hundred million livres and said: “Why should members ascend the tribunal and disquiet France? Fear nothing; your currency reposes upon a sound mortgage.” Then followed a glorification of the patriotism of the French people, which, he asserted, would carry the nation through all its difficulties.
Becquet, speaking next, declared that “The circulation is becoming more rare every day.”
On December 17, 1791, a new issue was ordered, making in all twenty-one hundred millions authorized. Coupled with this was the declaration that the total amount in actual circulation should never reach more than sixteen hundred millions. Before this issue the value of the 100 livres note had fallen at Paris to about 80 livres; immediately afterward it fell to about 68 livres. What limitations of the currency were worth may be judged from the fact that not only had the declaration made hardly a year before, limiting the amount in circulation to twelve hundred millions, been violated, but the declaration, made hardly a month previous, in which the Assembly had as solemnly limited the amount of circulation to fourteen hundred millions, had also been repudiated.
The evils which we have already seen arising from the earlier issues were now aggravated; but the most curious thing evolved out of all this chaos was a new system of political economy. In speeches, newspapers and pamphlets about this time, we begin to find it declared that, after all, a depreciated currency is a blessing; that gold and silver form an unsatisfactory standard for measuring values: that it is a good thing to have a currency that will not go out of the kingdom and which separates France from other nations: that thus shall manufacturers be encouraged; that commerce with other nations may be a curse, and hindrance thereto may be a blessing; that the laws of political economy however applicable in other times, are not applicable to this particular period, and, however operative in other nations, are not now so in France; that the ordinary rules of political economy are perhaps suited to the minions of despotism but not to the free and enlightened inhabitants of France at the close of the eighteenth century; that the whole state of present things, so far from being an evil is a blessing. All these ideas, and others quite as striking, were brought to the surface in the debates on the various new issues.
Within four months came another report to the Assembly as ingenious as those preceding. It declared: “Your committee are thoroughly persuaded that the amount of the circulating medium before the Revolution was greater than that of the assignats today: but at that time the money circulated slowly and now it passes rapidly so that one thousand million assignats do the work of two thousand millions of specie.” The report foretells further increase in prices, but by some curious jugglery reaches a conclusion favorable to further inflation. Despite these encouragements the assignats nominally worth 100 livres had fallen, at the beginning of February, 1792, to about 60 livres, and during that month fell to 53 livres.
In March, ClaviĂ¨re became minister of financ. He was especially proud of his share in the invention and advocacy of the assignats, and now pressed their creation more vigorously than ever, and on April 30th, of the same year, came the fifth great issue of paper money, amounting to three hundred millions: at about the same time Cambon sneered ominously at public creditors as “rich people, old financiers and bankers.” Soon payment was suspended on dues to public creditors for all amounts exceeding ten thousand francs.
This was hailed by many as a measure in the interests of the poorer classes of people, but the result was that it injured them most of all. Henceforward, until the end of this history, capital was quietly taken from labor and locked up in all the ways that financial ingenuity could devise. All that saved thousands of laborers in France from starvation was that they were drafted off into the army and sent to be killed on foreign battlefields.
On the last day of July, 1792, came another brilliant re- port from Fouquet, showing that the total amount of currency already issued was about twenty-four hundred millions, but claiming that the national lands were worth a little more than this sum. A decree was now passed issuing three hundred millions more. By this the prices of everything were again enhanced save one thing, and that one thing was labor. Strange as it may at first appear, while the depreciation of the currency had raised all products enormously in price, the stoppage of so many manufactories and the withdrawal of capital caused wages in the summer of 1792, after all the inflation, to be as small as they had been four years before—viz., fifteen sous per day. No more striking example can be seen of the truth uttered by Daniel Webster, that “of all the contrivances for cheating the laboring classes of mankind, none has been more effective than that which deludes them with paper-money.”
Issue after issue followed at intervals of a few months, until, on December 14, 1792, we have an official statement to the effect that thirty-five hundred millions had been put forth, of which six hundred millions had been burned, leaving in circulation twenty-eight hundred millions.
When it is remembered that there was little business to do and that the purchasing power of the livre or franc, when judged by the staple products of the country, was equal to about half the present purchasing power of our own dollar, it will be seen into what evils France had drifted. As the mania for paper money ran its course, even the sous, obtained by melting down the church bells, were more and more driven out of circulation and more and more parchment notes from twenty four to five were issued, and at last pieces of one sou, of half a sou and even of one-quarter of a sou were put in circulation.
But now another source of wealth was opened to the nation. There came a confiscation of the large estates of landed proprietors who had fled the country. An estimate in 1793 made the value of these estates three billions of francs. As a consequence, the issues of paper money were continued in increased amounts, on the old theory that they were guaranteed by the solemn pledge of these lands belonging to the state. Under the Legislative Assembly through the year 1792 new issues were made virtually every month, so that at the end of January, 1793, it was more and more realized that the paper money actually in circulation amounted close upon three thousand millions of francs. All this had been issued publicly, in open sessions of the National and Legislative Assemblies; but now under the National Convention, the two Committees of Public Safety and of Finance began to decree new issues privately, in secret session.
As a result, the issues became larger still, and four hundred workmen were added to those previously engaged in furnishing this paper money, and these were so pressed with work from six o’clock in the morning until eight in the evening that they struck for higher wages and were successful.
The consequences of these overissues now began to be more painfully evident to the people at large. Articles of common consumption became enormously dear and prices were constantly rising. Orators in the Legislative Assembly, clubs, local meetings and elsewhere now endeavored to enlighten people by assigning every reason for this depreciation save the true one. They declaimed against the corruption of the ministry, the want of patriotism among the Moderates, the intrigues of the emigrant nobles, the hard-heartedness of the rich, the monopolizing spirit of the merchants, the perversity of the shopkeepers,---each and all of these as causes of the difficulty.
This decline in the government paper was at first somewhat masked by fluctuations. For at various times the value of the currency rose. The victory of Jemappes and the general success of the French army against the invaders, with the additional security offered by new confiscations of land, caused, in November, 1792, an appreciation in the value of the currency; the franc had stood at 57 and it rose to about 69; but the downward tendency was soon resumed and in September, 1793, the assignats had sunk below 30. Then sundry new victories and coruscations of oratory gave momentary confidence so that in December, 1793, they rose above 50. But despite these fluctuations the downward
The washerwomen of Paris, finding soap so dear that they could hardly purchase it, insisted that all the merchants who were endeavoring to save something of their little property by refusing to sell their goods for the wretched currency with which France was flooded, should be punished with death; the women of the markets and the hangers-on of the Jacobin Club called loudly for a law “to equalize the value of paper money and silver coin.” It was also demanded that a tax be laid especially on the rich, to the amount of four hundred million francs, to buy bread. Marat declared loudly that the people, by hanging shopkeepers and plundering stores, could easily remove the trouble. The result was that on the 28th of February, 1793, at eight o’clock in the evening, a mob of men and women in disguise began plundering the stores and shops of Paris. At first they demanded only bread; soon they insisted on coffee and rice and sugar; at last they seized everything on which they could lay their hands—cloth, clothing, groceries and luxuries of every kind. Two hundred such places were plundered. This was endured for six hours and finally order was restored only by a grant of seven million francs to buy off the mob. The new political economy was beginning to bear, its fruits luxuriantly. A gaudy growth of it appeared at the City Hall of Paris when, in response to the complaints of the plundered merchants, Roux declared, in the midst of great applause, that “shopkeepers were only giving back to the people what they had hitherto robbed them of.”
The mob having thus been bought off by concessions and appeased by oratory, the government gained time to think, and now came a series of amazing expedients,--and yet all perfectly logical.
Three of these have gained in French history an evil pre-eminence, and first of the three was the Forced Loan.
France 1899-1914 ROOSTER GOLD coins
FIAT MONEY INFLATION IN FRANCE is an informative book about French paper money and runaway inflation during France's revolutionary years (in the 1700's). This historical information reveals the financial trouble brought about when un-backed paper currency was produced by the government. Although most paper money begins with good intentions; sometimes greed, avarice, personal gain, and economic crises influence political actions. The resulting consequences can be economic disaster resulting in devaluation (deflation) of the currency, runaway inflation of goods and services, economic upheaval, and even loss of life and property.
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