What would happen if ordinary people made their own money? Much of the buzz around cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin (explained here by historian Michael O’Malley) and local exchange systems (for example, Brixton Pound) hinges on their being local and decentralised. For proponents, their being issued by something other than a central bank makes them a more truly popular form of money—“money from the ground up,” as it were. The case of billets de confiance (local “confidence” or “trust” notes) issued during the French Revolution suggests, however, that decentralisation may not be the best way to make money more democratic.
The early years of the French Revolution were a time of excitement, enthusiasm, and political creativity but also of chaos and anxiety. As often happens during periods of political and social uncertainty, merchants stopped selling on credit and even people who had money became very reluctant to spend it. There had, in fact, never been enough small change in actual circulation—this was a chronic problem in medieval and early-modern Europe—but it hadn’t mattered as long as bakers, butchers, and café keepers kept accounts and had their regular customers pay every three months or so. As I explore more in my recent book, the outbreak of the Revolution changed all that, making all bills come due at once. Suddenly, there just wasn’t enough money. To deal with the crisis, the National Assembly issued large-denomination bills backed by the value of properties nationalised from the Catholic Church (these bills were called assignats because they were “assigned to” a particular fund for payment). But the smallest of the assignats was a bill for 200 livres and that was just no good for buying a cup of coffee or a loaf of bread (even when bread was expensive, you could get 800 loaves for that much money). Smaller denomination assignats were eventually issued but, before they were, literally thousands of entities—chiefly local governments, but also political clubs and for-profit businesses—responded to the 1790-1792 shortage of small change by issuing billets de confiance: small-denomination bills themselves backed by large-denomination assignats held by the issuer.
Looking at these billets helps us grasp how their issuers and users understood the source of their value.
A simple yellow bill from the small town of Courville, for instance, states that it has been “authorised by the municipality” and in the margins names the next higher levels of administration—the district (Chateauneuf) and department (Eure-et-Loir)—as well. Its Latin slogan “Ad utilitatem Civium” means “for the benefit of citizens,” but nowhere on the bill is there any mention of France. This is clearly meant to be a local money. While the Greek letters inserted decoratively and printed sideways at the corners may have been meant as an anti-counterfeiting device (would-be counterfeiters would have needed to have access to those characters as well), the real security elements in this bill are its hand-lettered serial number and the signatures of two local authorities—men known, at least by reputation, to nearly everyone in Courville.
A bill issued by the charitable Caisse Patriotique (Patriotic Chest) of Niort (Deux Sèvres) reveals this logic all the more clearly, ringed as it is by the printed names of all the Chest’s backers (including the town’s former and current mayor and the president of the local Jacobin Club).
When the wallpaper manufacturers Fresneau Frères in Laigle (Orne) issued billets to pay their workers’ wages, they both signed and numbered them by hand and designed the bills to show off the artistry of their printing presses.
Whether issued by a city government, a local charity, or a private firm, billets rarely referred to any central authority or gave a sense of national belonging. Those embellished with what we now consider to be symbols of the French Revolution—such as this one from a Paris section (administrative precinct) with its clearly labeled “Liberty cap” —are an exception rather than the rule.
Inscribed in various and often multiple ways with signs of their local context—bills issued in the southern city of Nîmes were decorated with that city’s emblem, a crocodile chained to a palm tree —the billets derived their value not from the imagined community of the French nation but from the face-to-face community of a town or district.
Though their circulation was never legally forced (no one was obliged by law to accept one), the shortage of any other small change meant that refusing them was not really an option for many people. The exchange relationship between buyers and sellers, like that between an employer and his wage-earning employees, was however unequal. Farmers—people who had crops to sell—were ideally positioned vis-à-vis this money of trust. If they felt so inclined, they could accept billets in payment; if they doubted them, they could take their eggs or their barley and go home. Wage workers faced a very different situation. A wallpaper painter in the Fresneau Frères’s factory, for instance, could either accept the billet she was offered or go unpaid. Bill in hand, she had then to find a baker willing to accept it. And if the billets proved an effective “stop gap” in some contexts, they were far less useful when they were carried far from their place of issue. With the outbreak of war in spring 1792, volunteer soldiers raced to the borders to defend France and the Revolution, only to find that the local money they carried was rejected by their fellow countrymen. Who, then, was the enemy?
Materialisations of old networks of trust—networks that were local, particular, and unequal—the billets were outlawed by the republican government in 1793 as it tried desperately to assert authority and build a sense of shared, national identity. The history of these radical objects suggests that decentralised money production works best where there is little, or only very regular, movement of goods and people. It also reminds us that the difference between private money (like the bills issued by manufacturers or for-profit banks) and public money (such as the bills produced by towns or districts) may be as important as that between local money and central-bank money.
In fact, most money today isn’t issued by central banks but created by private, commercial banks whenever they make a loan. (Remember, banks hold only a tiny fraction of what they lend and a bank’s assets consist chiefly of money due to it.) As the economist Ann Pettifor has noted, commercial banks have little incentive to create money for low-profit, public-goods projects such as healthcare, education, and low-cost housing. This means that while there’s somehow always money for high-profit, privately funded, speculative ventures, there’s rarely any for spending on the common good. Perhaps the really radical idea would be to recentralise money creation, rather than decentralise it?
Rebecca Spang has been a member of the History Workshop editorial collective for eighteen years. Professor of History at Indiana University, she is the author of The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture and Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution (both published by Harvard University Press).