Dallas Fed president Richard Fisher reminds us that bubbles are nothing new (suggested by email):
Listening to Washington Irving, by Richard Fisher, Dallas Fed: There is nothing “unprecedented” about the situation we find ourselves in. To illustrate the point, I want to read a passage from Washington Irving’s 1819 essay on the Mississippi Bubble. For those of you who think the recent housing bubble and the ensuing financial imbroglio are “unprecedented,” listen to these words penned almost 200 years ago:
Every now and then the world is visited by one of these delusive seasons, when the ‘credit system’…expands to full luxuriance: everybody trusts everybody; a bad debt is a thing unheard of; the broad way to certain and sudden wealth lies plain and open…. Banks…become so many mints to coin words into cash; and as the supply of words is inexhaustible, it may readily be supposed what a vast amount of promissory capital is soon in circulation…. Nothing is heard but gigantic operations in trade; great purchases and sales of real property, and immense sums made at every transfer. All, to be sure, as yet exists in promise; but the believer in promises calculates the aggregate as solid capital….
Now is the time for speculative and dreaming or designing men. They relate their dreams and projects to the ignorant and credulous, [and] dazzle them with golden visions…. The example of one stimulates another; speculation rises on speculation; bubble rises on bubble…. No ‘operation’ is thought worthy of attention, that does not double or treble the investment…. Could this delusion always last, the life of a merchant would indeed be a golden dream; but it is as short as it is brilliant.
And to think, Washington Irving had never met a subprime mortgage, or a CDO, a CLO, an SIV or a credit default swap...
Here's the entire essay, "The Great Mississippi Bubble" from The Crayon Papers (it's a bit longer than usual):
"A TIME OF UNEXAMPLED PROSPERITY"
In the course of a voyage from England, I once fell in with a convoy of merchant ships bound for the West Indies. The weather was uncommonly bland; and the ships vied with each other in spreading sail to catch a light, favoring breeze, until their hulls were almost hidden beneath a cloud of canvas. The breeze went down with the sun, and his last yellow rays shone upon a thousand sails, idly flapping against the masts.
I exulted in the beauty of the scene, and augured a prosperous voyage; but the veteran master of the ship shook his head, and pronounced this halcyon calm a "weather-breeder." And so it proved. A storm burst forth in the night; the sea roared and raged; and when the day broke, I beheld the late gallant convoy scattered in every direction; some dismasted, others scudding under bare poles, and many firing signals of distress.
I have since been occasionally reminded of this scene, by those calm, sunny seasons in the commercial world, which are known by the name of "times of unexampled prosperity." They are the sure weather-breeders of traffic. Every now and then the world is visited by one of these delusive seasons, when "the credit system," as it is called, expands to full luxuriance, everybody trusts everybody; a bad debt is a thing unheard of; the broad way to certain and sudden wealth lies plain and open; and men are tempted to dash forward boldly, from the facility of borrowing.
Promissory notes, interchanged between scheming individuals, are liberally discounted at the banks, which become so many mints to coin words into cash; and as the supply of words is inexhaustible, it may readily be supposed what a vast amount of promissory capital is soon in circulation. Every one now talks in thousands; nothing is heard but gigantic operations in trade; great purchases and sales of real property, and immense sums made at every transfer. All, to be sure, as yet exists in promise; but the believer in promises calculates the aggregate as solid capital, and falls back in amazement at the amount of public wealth, the "unexampled state of public prosperity."
Now is the time for speculative and dreaming or designing men. They relate their dreams and projects to the ignorant and credulous, dazzle them with golden visions, and set them madding after shadows. The example of one stimulates another; speculation rises on speculation; bubble rises on bubble; every one helps with his breath to swell the windy superstructure, and admires and wonders at the magnitude of the inflation he has contributed to produce.
Speculation is the romance of trade, and casts contempt upon all its sober realities. It renders the stock-jobber a magician, and the exchange a region of enchantment. It elevates the merchant into a kind of knight-errant, or rather a commercial Quixote. The slow but sure gains of snug percentage become despicable in his eyes; no "operation" is thought worthy of attention that does not double or treble the investment. No business is worth following that does not promise an immediate fortune. As he sits musing over his ledger, with pen behind his ear, he is like La Mancha's hero in his study, dreaming over his books of chivalry. His dusty counting-house fades before his eyes, or changes into a Spanish mine; he gropes after diamonds, or dives after pearls. The subterranean garden of Aladdin is nothing to the realms of wealth that break upon his imagination. Could this delusion always last, the life of a merchant would indeed be a golden dream; but it is as short as it is brilliant. Let but a doubt enter, and the "season of unexampled prosperity" is at end. The coinage of words is suddenly curtailed; the promissory capital begins to vanish into smoke; a panic succeeds, and the whole superstructure, built upon credit and reared by speculation, crumbles to the ground, leaving scarce a wreck behind:
"It is such stuff as dreams are made of."
When a man of business, therefore, hears on every side rumors of fortunes suddenly acquired; when he finds banks liberal, and brokers busy; when he sees adventurers flush of paper capital, and full of scheme and enterprise; when he perceives a greater disposition to buy than to sell; when trade overflows its accustomed channels and deluges the country; when he hears of new regions of commercial adventure; of distant marts and distant mines, swallowing merchandise and disgorging gold; when he finds joint-stock companies of all kinds forming; railroads, canals, and locomotive engines, springing up on every side; when idlers suddenly become men of business, and dash into the game of commerce as they would into the hazards of the faro table; when he beholds the streets glittering with new equipages, palaces conjured up by the magic of speculation; tradesmen flushed with sudden success, and vying with each other in ostentatious expense; in a word, when he hears the whole community joining in the theme of "unexampled prosperity," let him look upon the whole as a "weather-breeder," and prepare for the impending storm.
The foregoing remarks are intended merely as a prelude to a narrative I am about to lay before the public, of one of the most memorable instances of the infatuation of gain to be found in the whole history of commerce. I allude to the famous Mississippi Bubble. It is a matter that has passed into a proverb, and become a phrase in every one's mouth, yet of which not one merchant in ten has probably a distinct idea. I have therefore thought that an authentic account of it would be interesting and salutary, at the present moment, when we are suffering under the effects of a severe access of the credit system, and just recovering from one of its ruinous delusions.
Before entering into the story of this famous chimera, it is proper to give a few particulars concerning the individual who engendered it. John Law was born in Edinburgh in 1671. His father, William Law, was a rich goldsmith, and left his son an estate of considerable value, called Lauriston, situated about four miles from Edinburgh. Goldsmiths, in those days, acted occasionally as bankers, and his father's operations, under this character, may have originally turned the thoughts of the youth to the science of calculation, in which he became an adept; so that at an early age he excelled in playing at all games of combination.
In 1694 he appeared in London, where a handsome person, and an easy and insinuating address, gained him currency in the first circles and the nickname of "Beau Law." The same personal advantages gave him success in the world of gallantry, until he became involved in a quarrel with Beau Wilson, his rival in fashion, whom he killed in a duel, and then fled to France, to avoid prosecution.
He returned to Edinburgh in 1700, and remained there several years; during which time he first broached his great credit system, offering to supply the deficiency of coin by the establishment of a bank, which, according to his views, might emit a paper currency equivalent to the whole landed estate of the kingdom.
His scheme excited great astonishment in Edinburgh; but, though the government was not sufficiently advanced in financial knowledge to detect the fallacies upon which it was founded, Scottish caution and suspicion served in the place of wisdom, and the project was rejected. Law met with no better success with the English Parliament; and the fatal affair of the death of Wilson still hanging over him, for which he had never been able to procure a pardon, he again went to France.
The financial affairs of France were at this time in a deplorable condition. The wars, the pomp and profusion, of Louis XIV., and his religious persecutions of whole classes of the most industrious of his subjects, had exhausted his treasury, and overwhelmed the nation with debt. The old monarch clung to his selfish magnificence, and could not be induced to diminish his enormous expenditure; and his minister of finance was driven to his wits' end to devise all kinds of disastrous expedients to keep up the royal state, and to extricate the nation from its embarrassments.
In this state of things, Law ventured to bring forward his financial project. It was founded on the plan of the Bank of England, which had already been in successful operation several years. He met with immediate patronage, and a congenial spirit, in the Duke of Orleans, who had married a natural daughter of the king. The duke had been astonished at the facility with which England had supported the burden of a public debt, created by the wars of Anne and William, and which exceeded in amount that under which France was groaning. The whole matter was soon explained by Law to his satisfaction. The latter maintained that England had stopped at the mere threshold of an art capable of creating unlimited sources of national wealth. The duke was dazzled with his splendid views and specious reasonings, and thought he clearly comprehended his system. Demarets, the Comptroller-General of Finance, was not so easily deceived. He pronounced the plan of Law more pernicious than any of the disastrous expedients that the government had yet been driven to. The old king also, Louis XIV., detested all innovations, especially those which came from a rival nation; the project of a bank, therefore, was utterly rejected.
Law remained for a while in Paris, leading a gay and affluent existence, owing to his handsome person, easy manners, flexible temper, and a faro-bank which he had set up. His agreeable career was interrupted by a message from D'Argenson, Lieutenant-General of Police, ordering him to quit Paris, alleging that he was "rather too skillful at the game which he had introduced."
For several succeeding years he shifted his residence from state to state of Italy and Germany; offering his scheme of finance to every court that he visited, but without success. The Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus, afterward king of Sardinia, was much struck with his project; but after considering it for a time, replied, "I am not sufficiently powerful to ruin myself."
The shifting, adventurous life of Law, and the equivocal means by which he appeared to live, playing high, and always with great success, threw a cloud of suspicion over him wherever he went, and caused him to be expelled by the magistracy from the semi-commercial, semi-aristocratical cities of Venice and Genoa.
The events of 1715 brought Law back again to Paris. Louis XIV. was dead. Louis XV. was a mere child, and during his minority the Duke of Orleans held the reins of government as Regent. Law had at length found his man.
The Duke of Orleans has been differently represented by different contemporaries. He appears to have had excellent natural qualities, perverted by a bad education. He was of the middle size, easy and graceful, with an agreeable countenance, and open, affable demeanor. His mind was quick and sagacious, rather than profound; and his quickness of intellect, and excellence of memory, supplied the lack of studious application. His wit was prompt and pungent; he expressed himself with vivacity and precision; his imagination was vivid, his temperament sanguine and joyous; his courage daring. His mother, the Duchess of Orleans, expressed his character in a jeu d'esprit. "The fairies," said she, "were invited to be present at his birth, and each one conferring a talent on my son, he possesses them all. Unfortunately, we had forgotten to invite an old fairy, who, arriving after all the others, exclaimed, 'He shall have all the talents, excepting that to make a good use of them.'"
Under proper tuition, the duke might have risen to real greatness; but in his early years he was put under the tutelage of the Abbe Dubois, one of the subtlest and basest spirits that ever intrigued its way into eminent place and power. The abbe was of low origin and despicable exterior, totally destitute of morals, and perfidious in the extreme; but with a supple, insinuating address, and an accommodating spirit, tolerant of all kinds of profligacy in others. Conscious of his own inherent baseness, he sought to secure an influence over his pupil, by corrupting his principles and fostering his vices; he debased him, to keep himself from being despised. Unfortunately he succeeded. To the early precepts of this infamous pander have been attributed those excesses that disgraced the manhood of the regent, and gave a licentious character to his whole course of government. His love of pleasure, quickened and indulged by those who should have restrained it, led him into all kinds of sensual indulgence. He had been taught to think lightly of the most serious duties and sacred ties; to turn virtue into a jest, and consider religion mere hypocrisy. He was a gay misanthrope, that had a sovereign but sportive contempt for mankind; believed that his most devoted servant would be his enemy, if interest prompted; and maintained that an honest man was he who had the art to conceal that he was the contrary.
He surrounded himself with a set of dissolute men like himself; who, let loose from the restraint under which they had been held, during the latter hypocritical days of Louis XIV., now gave way to every kind of debauchery. With these men the regent used to shut himself up, after the hours of business, and excluding all graver persons and graver concerns, celebrate the most drunken and disgusting orgies; where obscenity and blasphemy formed the seasoning of conversation. For the profligate companions of these revels, he invented the appellation of his roués, the literal meaning of which is men broken on the wheel; intended, no doubt, to express their broken-down characters and dislocated fortunes; although a contemporary asserts that it designated the punishment that most of them merited. Madame de Labran, who was present at one of the regent's suppers, was disgusted by the conduct and conversation of the host and his guests, and observed, at table, that God, after he had created man, took the refuse clay that was left, and made of it the souls of lackeys and princes.
Such was the man that now ruled the destinies of France. Law found him full of perplexities, from the disastrous state of the finances. He had already tampered with the coinage, calling in the coin of the nation, restamping it, and issuing it at a nominal increase of one-fifth; thus defrauding the nation out of twenty per cent of its capital. He was not likely, therefore, to be scrupulous about any means likely to relieve him from financial difficulties; he had even been led to listen to the cruel alternative of a national bankruptcy.
Under these circumstances, Law confidently brought forward his scheme of a bank, that was to pay off the national debt, increase the revenue, and at the same time diminish the taxes. The following is stated as the theory by which he recommended his system to the regent. The credit enjoyed by a banker or a merchant, he observed, increases his capital tenfold; that is to say, he who has a capital of one thousand livres, may, if he possess sufficient credit, extend his operations to a million, and reap profits to that amount. In like manner, a state that can collect into a bank all the current coin of the kingdom, would be as powerful as if its capital were increased tenfold. The specie must be drawn into the bank, not by way of loan, or by taxations, but in the way of deposit. This might be effected in different modes, either by inspiring confidence or by exerting authority. One mode, he observed, had already been in use. Each time that a state makes a recoinage, it becomes momentarily the depositary of all the money called in, belonging to the subjects of that state. His bank was to effect the same purpose; that is to say, to receive in deposit all the coin of the kingdom, but to give in exchange its bills, which, being of an invariable value, bearing an interest, and being payable on demand, would not only supply the place of coin, but prove a better and more profitable currency.
The regent caught with avidity at the scheme. It suited his bold, reckless spirit, and his grasping extravagance. Not that he was altogether the dupe of Law's specious projects; still he was apt, like many other men, unskilled in the arcana of finance, to mistake the multiplication of money for the multiplication of wealth; not understanding that it was a mere agent or instrument in the interchange of traffic, to represent the value of the various productions of industry; and that an increased circulation of coin or bank bills, in the shape of currency, only adds a proportionably increased and fictitious value to such productions. Law enlisted the vanity of the regent in his cause. He persuaded him that he saw more clearly than others into sublime theories of finance, which were quite above the ordinary apprehension. He used to declare that, excepting the regent and the Duke of Savoy, no one had thoroughly comprehended his system.
It is certain that it met with strong opposition from the regent's ministers, the Duke de Noailles and the Chancellor d'Anguesseau; and it was no less strenuously opposed by the Parliament of Paris. Law, however, had a potent though secret coadjutor in the Abbe Dubois, now rising, during the regency, into great political power, and who retained a baneful influence over the mind of the regent. This wily priest, as avaricious as he was ambitious, drew large sums from Law as subsidies, and aided him greatly in many of his most pernicious operations. He aided him, in the present instance, to fortify the mind of the regent against all the remonstrances of his ministers and the parliament.
Accordingly, on the 2d of May, 1716, letters patent were granted to Law, to establish a bank of deposit, discount, and circulation, under the firm of "Law & Company," to continue for twenty years. The capital was fixed at six millions of livres, divided into shares of five hundred livres each, which were to be sold for twenty-five per cent of the regent's debased coin, and seventy-five per cent of the public securities; which were then at a great reduction from their nominal value, and which then amounted to nineteen hundred millions. The ostensible object of the bank, as set forth in the patent, was to encourage the commerce and manufactures of France. The louis d'ors and crowns of the bank were always to retain the same standard of value, and its bills to be payable in them on demand.
At the outset, while the bank was limited in its operations, and while its paper really represented the specie in its vaults, it seemed to realize all that had been promised from it. It rapidly acquired public confidence, and an extended circulation, and produced an activity in commerce unknown under the baneful government of Louis XIV. As the bills of the bank bore an interest, and as it was stipulated they would be of invariable value, and as hints had been artfully circulated that the coin would experience successive diminution, everybody hastened to the bank to exchange gold and silver for paper. So great became the throng of depositors, and so intense their eagerness, that there was quite a press and struggle at the bank door, and a ludicrous panic was awakened, as if there was danger of their not being admitted. An anecdote of the time relates that one of the clerks, with an ominous smile, called out to the struggling multitude, "Have a little patience, my friends; we mean to take all your money;" an assertion disastrously verified in the sequel.
Thus, by the simple establishment of a bank, Law and the regent obtained pledges of confidence for the consummation of further and more complicated schemes, as yet hidden from the public. In a little while, the bank shares rose enormously, and the amount of its notes in circulation exceeded one hundred and ten millions of livres. A subtle stroke of policy had rendered it popular with the aristocracy. Louis XIV. had several years previously imposed an income tax of a tenth, giving his royal word that it should cease in 1717. This tax had been exceedingly irksome to the privileged orders; and in the present disastrous times they had dreaded an augmentation of it. In consequence of the successful operation of Law's scheme, however, the tax was abolished, and now nothing was to be heard among the nobility and clergy but praises of the regent and the bank.
Hitherto all had gone well, and all might have continued to go well, had not the paper system been further expanded. But Law had yet the grandest part of his scheme to develop. He had to open his ideal world of speculation, his El Dorado of unbounded wealth. The English had brought the vast imaginary commerce of the South Seas in aid of their banking operations. Law sought to bring, as an immense auxiliary of his bank, the whole trade of the Mississippi. Under this name was included not merely the river so called, but the vast region known as Louisiana, extending from north latitude 29∞ up to Canada in north latitude 40∞. This country had been granted by Louis XIV. to the Sieur Crozat, but he had been induced to resign his patent. In conformity to the plea of Mr. Law, letters patent were granted in August, 1717, for the creation of a commercial company, which was to have the colonizing of this country, and the monopoly of its trade and resources, and of the beaver or fur trade with Canada. It was called the Western, but became better known as the Mississippi Company. The capital was fixed at one hundred millions of livres, divided into shares, bearing an Interest of four per cent, which were subscribed for in the public securities. As the bank was to co-operate with the company, the regent ordered that its bills should be received the same as coin, in all payments of the public revenue. Law was appointed chief director of this company, which was an exact copy of the Earl of Oxford's South Sea Company, set on foot in 1711, and which distracted all England with the frenzy of speculation. In like manner with the delusive picturings given in that memorable scheme of the sources of rich trade to be opened in the South Sea countries, Law held forth magnificent prospects of the fortunes to be made in colonizing Louisiana, which was represented as a veritable land of promise, capable of yielding every variety of the most precious produce. Reports, too, were artfully circulated, with great mystery, as if to the "chosen few," of mines of gold and silver recently discovered in Louisiana, and which would insure instant wealth to the early purchasers. These confidential whispers of course soon became public; and were confirmed by travelers fresh from the Mississippi, and doubtless bribed, who had seen the mines in question, and declared them superior in richness to those of Mexico and Peru. Nay, more, ocular proof was furnished to public credulity, in ingots of gold conveyed to the mint, as if just brought from the mines of Louisiana.
Extraordinary measures were adopted to force a colonization. An edict was issued to collect and transport settlers to the Mississippi. The police lent its aid. The streets and prisons of Paris, and of the provincial cities, were swept of mendicants and vagabonds of all kinds, who were conveyed to Havre de Grace. About six thousand were crowded into ships, where no precautions had been taken for their health or accommodation. Instruments of all kinds proper for the working of mines were ostentatiously paraded in public, and put on board the vessels; and the whole set sail for this fabled El Dorado, which was to prove the grave of the greater part of its wretched colonists.
D'Anguesseau, the chancellor, a man of probity and integrity, still lifted his voice against the paper system of Law, and his project of colonization, and was eloquent and prophetic in picturing the evils they were calculated to produce; the private distress and public degradation; the corruption of morals and manners; the triumph of knaves and schemers; the ruin of fortunes, and downfall of families. He was incited more and more to this opposition by the Duke de Noailles, the Minister of Finance, who was jealous of the growing ascendency of Law over the mind of the regent, but was less honest than the chancellor in his opposition. The regent was excessively annoyed by the difficulties they conjured up in the way of his darling schemes of finance, and the countenance they gave to the opposition of parliament; which body, disgusted more and more with the abuses of the regency, and the system of Law, had gone so far as to carry its remonstrances to the very foot of the throne.
He determined to relieve himself from these two ministers, who, either through honesty or policy, interfered with all his plans. Accordingly, on the 28th of January, 1718, he dismissed the chancellor from office, and exiled him to his estate in the country; and shortly afterward removed the Duke de Noailles from the administration of the finances.
The opposition of parliament to the regent and his measures was carried on with increasing violence. That body aspired to an equal authority with the regent in the administration of affairs, and pretended, by its decree, to suspend an edict of the regency, ordering a new coinage and altering the value of the currency. But its chief hostility was leveled against Law, a foreigner and a heretic, and one who was considered by a majority of the members in the light of a malefactor. In fact, so far was this hostility carried, that secret measures were taken to investigate his malversations, and to collect evidence against him; and it was resolved in parliament that, should the testimony collected justify their suspicions, they would have him seized and brought before them; would give him a brief trial, and, if convicted, would hang him in the courtyard of the palace, and throw open the gates after the execution, that the public might behold his corpse!
Law received intimation of the danger hanging over him, and was in terrible trepidation. He took refuge in the Palais Royal, the residence of the regent, and implored his protection. The regent himself was embarrassed by the sturdy opposition of parliament, which contemplated nothing less than a decree reversing most of his public measures, especially those of finance. His indecision kept Law for a time in an agony of terror and suspense. Finally, by assembling a board of justice, and bringing to his aid the absolute authority of the king, he triumphed over parliament and relieved Law from his dread of being hanged.
The system now went on with flowing sail. The Western or Mississippi Company, being identified with the bank, rapidly increased in power and privileges. One monopoly after another was granted to it; the trade of the Indian seas; the slave trade with Senegal and Guinea; the farming of tobacco; the national coinage, etc. Each new privilege was made a pretext for issuing more bills, and caused an immense advance in the price of stock. At length, on the 4th of December, 1718, the regent gave the establishment the imposing title of "The Royal Bank," and proclaimed that he had effected the purchase of all the shares, the proceeds of which he had added to its capital This measure seemed to shock the public feeling more than any other connected with the system, and roused the indignation of parliament. The French nation had been so accustomed to attach an idea of everything noble, lofty, and magnificent to the royal name and person, especially during the stately and sumptuous reign of Louis XIV., that they could not at first tolerate the idea of royalty being in any degree mingled with matters of traffic and finance, and the king being in a manner a banker. It was one of the downward steps, however, by which royalty lost its illusive splendor in France, and became gradually cheapened in the public mind.
Arbitrary measures now began to be taken to force the bills of the bank into artificial currency. On the 27th of December appeared an order in council, forbidding, under severe penalties, the payment of any sum above six hundred livres in gold or silver. This decree rendered bank bills necessary in all transactions of purchase and sale, and called for a new emission. The prohibition was occasionally evaded or opposed; confiscations were the consequence; informers were rewarded, and spies and traitors began to spring up in all the domestic walks of life.
The worst effect of this illusive system was the mania for gain, or rather for gambling in stocks, that now seized upon the whole nation. Under the exciting effects of lying reports, and the forcing effects of government decrees, the shares of the company went on rising in value until they reached thirteen hundred per cent. Nothing was now spoken of but the price of shares, and the immense fortunes suddenly made by lucky speculators. Those whom Law had deluded used every means to delude others. The most extravagant dreams were indulged, concerning the wealth to flow in upon the company from its colonies, its trade, and its various monopolies. It is true nothing as yet had been realized, nor could in some time be realized, from these distant sources, even if productive; but the imaginations of speculators are ever in the advance, and their conjectures are immediately converted into facts. Lying reports now flew from mouth to month, of sure avenues to fortune suddenly thrown open. The more extravagant the fable, the more readily was it believed. To doubt was to awaken anger, or incur ridicule. In a time of public infatuation, it requires no small exercise of courage to doubt a popular fallacy.
Paris now became the center of attraction for the adventurous and the avaricious, who flocked to it, not merely from the provinces, but from neighboring countries. A stock exchange was established in a house in the Rue Quincampoix, and became immediately the gathering place of stock-jobbers. The exchange opened at seven o'clock, with the beat of drum and sound of bell, and closed at night with the same signals. Guards were stationed at each end of the street, to maintain order and exclude carriages and horses. The whole street swarmed throughout the day like a bee-hive. Bargains of all kinds were seized upon with avidity. Shares of stock passed from hand to hand, mounting in value, one knew not why. Fortunes were made in a moment, as if by magic; and every lucky bargain prompted those around to a more desperate throw of the die. The fever went on, increasing in intensity as the day declined; and when the drum beat, and the bell rang, at night, to close the exchange, there were exclamations of impatience and despair, as if the wheel of fortune had suddenly been stopped when about to make its luckiest evolution.
To engulf all classes in this ruinous vortex, Law now split the shares of fifty millions of stock each into one hundred shares; thus, as in the splitting of lottery tickets, accommodating the venture to the humblest purse. Society was thus stirred up to its very dregs, and adventurers of the lowest order hurried to the stock market. All honest, industrious pursuits, and modest gains, were now despised. Wealth was to be obtained instantly, without labor and without stint. The upper classes were as base in their venality as the lower. The highest and most powerful nobles, abandoning all generous pursuits and lofty aims, engaged in the vile scuffle for gam. They were even baser than the lower classes; for some of them, who were members of the council of the regency, abused their station and their influence, and promoted measures by which shares rose while in their hands, and they made immense profits.
The Duke de Bourbon, the prince of Conti, the Dukes de la Force and D'Antin were among the foremost of these illustrious stock-jobbers. They were nicknamed the Mississippi Lords, and they smiled at the sneering title. In fact, the usual distinctions of society had lost their consequence, under the reign of this new passion. Bank, talent, military fame, no longer inspired deference. All respect for others, all self-respect, were forgotten in the mercenary struggle of the stock-market. Even prelates and ecclesiastical corporations, forgetting their true objects of devotion, mingled among the votaries of Mammon. They were not behind those who wielded the civil power in fabricating ordinances suited to their avaricious purposes. Theological decisions forthwith appeared, in which the anathema launched by the Church against usury was conveniently construed as not extending to the traffic in bank shares!
The Abbe Dubois entered into the mysteries of stockjobbing with all the zeal of an apostle, and enriched himself by the spoils of the credulous; and he continually drew large sums from Law, as considerations for his political influence. Faithless to his country, in the course of his gambling speculations he transferred to England a great amount of specie, which had been paid into the royal treasury; thus contributing to the subsequent dearth of the precious metals.
The female sex participated in this sordid frenzy. Princesses of the blood, and ladies of the highest nobility, were among the most rapacious of stock-jobbers. The regent seemed to have the riches of Croesus at his command, and lavished money by hundreds of thousands upon his female relatives and favorites, as well as upon his roués, the dissolute companions of his debauches. "My son," writes the regent's mother, in her correspondence, "gave me shares to the amount of two millions, which I distributed among my household. The king also took several millions for his own household. All the royal family have had them; all the children and grandchildren of France, and the princes of the blood."
Luxury and extravagance kept pace with this sudden inflation of fancied wealth. The hereditary palaces of nobles were pulled down, and rebuilt on a scale of augmented splendor. Entertainments were given of incredible cost and magnificence. Never before had been such display in houses, furniture, equipages, and amusements. This was particularly the case among persons of the lower ranks, who had suddenly become possessed of millions. Ludicrous anecdotes are related of some of these upstarts. One, who had just launched a splendid carriage, when about to use it for the first time, instead of getting in at the door, mounted, through habitude, to his accustomed place behind. Some ladies of quality, seeing a well-dressed woman covered with diamonds, but whom nobody knew, alight from a very handsome carriage, inquired who she was of the footman. He replied, with a sneer: "It is a lady who has recently tumbled from a garret into this carriage." Mr. Law's domestics were said to become in like manner suddenly enriched by the crumbs that fell from his table. His coachman, having made his fortune, retired from his service. Mr. Law requested him to procure a coachman in his place. He appeared the next day with two, whom he pronounced equally good, and told Mr. Law: "Take which of them you choose, and I will take the other!"
Nor were these novi homini treated with the distance and disdain they would formerly have experienced from the haughty aristocracy of France. The pride of the old noblesse had been stifled by the stronger instinct of avarice. They rather sought the intimacy and confidence of these lucky upstarts; and it has been observed that a nobleman would gladly take his seat at the table of the fortunate lackey of yesterday, in hopes of learning from him the secret of growing rich!
Law now went about with a countenance radiant with success and apparently dispensing wealth on every side. "He is admirably skilled in all that relates to finance," writes the Duchess of Orleans, the regent's mother, "and has put the affairs of the state in such good order that all the king's debts have been paid. He is so much run after that he has no repose night or day. A duchess even kissed his hand publicly. If a duchess can do this, what will other ladies do?"
Wherever he went, his path, we are told, was beset by a sordid throng, who waited to see him pass, and sought to obtain the favor of a word, a nod, or smile, as if a mere glance from him would bestow fortune. When at home, his house was absolutely besieged by furious candidates for fortune. "They forced the doors," says the Duke de St. Simon; "they scaled his windows from the garden; they made their way into his cabinet down the chimney!"
The same venal court was paid by all classes to his family. The highest ladies of the court vied with each other in meannesses to purchase the lucrative friendship of Mrs. Law and her daughter. They waited upon them with as much assiduity and adulation as if they had been princesses of the blood. The regent one day expressed a desire that some duchess should accompany his daughter to Genoa. "My lord," said some one present, "if you would have a choice from among the duchesses, you need but send to Mrs. Law's, you will find them all assembled there."
The wealth of Law rapidly increased with the expansion of the bubble. In the course of a few months he purchased fourteen titled estates, paying for them in paper; and the public hailed these sudden and vast acquisitions of landed property as so many proofs of the soundness of his system. In one instance he met with a shrewd bargainer, who had not the general faith in his paper money. The President de Novion insisted on being paid for an estate in hard coin. Law accordingly brought the amount, four hundred thousand livres, in specie, saying, with a sarcastic smile, that he preferred paying in money as its weight rendered it a mere encumbrance. As it happened, the president could give no clear title to the land, and the money had to be refunded. He paid it back in paper, which Law dared not refuse, lest he should depreciate it in the market.
The course of illusory credit went on triumphantly for eighteen months. Law had nearly fulfilled one of his promises, for the greater part of the public debt had been paid off; but how paid? In bank shares, which had been trumped up several hundred per cent above their value, and which were to vanish like smoke in the hands of the holders.
One of the most striking attributes of Law was the imperturbable assurance and self-possession with which he replied to every objection, and found a solution for every problem. He had the dexterity of a juggler in evading difficulties; and what was peculiar, made figures themselves, which are the very elements of exact demonstration, the means to dazzle and bewilder.
Toward the latter end of 1719 the Mississippi scheme had reached its highest point of glory. Half a million of strangers had crowded into Paris in quest of fortune. The hotels and lodging-houses were overflowing; lodgings were procured with excessive difficulty; granaries were turned into bedrooms; provisions had risen enormously in price; splendid houses were multiplying on every side; the streets were crowded with carriages; above a thousand new equipages had been launched.
On the eleventh of December, Law obtained another prohibitory decree, for the purpose of sweeping all the remaining specie in circulation into the bank. By this it was forbidden to make any payment in silver above ten livres, or in gold above three hundred.
The repeated decrees of this nature, the object of which was to depreciate the value of gold, and increase the illusive credit of paper, began to awaken doubts of a system which required such bolstering. Capitalists gradually awoke from their bewilderment. Sound and able financiers consulted together, and agreed to make common cause against this continual expansion of a paper system. The shares of the bank and of the company began to decline in value. Wary men took the alarm, and began to realize, a word now first brought into use, to express the conversion of ideal property into something real.
The prince of Conti, one of the most prominent and grasping of the Mississippi lords, was the first to give a blow to the credit of the bank. There was a mixture of ingratitude in his conduct that characterized the venal baseness of the times. He had received from time to time enormous sums from Law, as the price of his influence and patronage. His avarice had increased with every acquisition, until Law was compelled to refuse one of his exactions. In revenge the prince immediately sent such an amount of paper to the bank to be cashed that it required four wagons to bring away the silver, and he had the meanness to loll out of the window of his hotel and jest and exult as it was trundled into his portecochère.
This was the signal for other drains of like nature. The English and Dutch merchants, who had purchased a great amount of bank paper at low prices, cashed them at the bank, and carried the money out of the country. Other strangers did the like, thus draining the kingdom of its specie, and leaving paper in its place.
The regent, perceiving these symptoms of decay in the system, sought to restore it to public confidence by conferring marks of confidence upon its author.
He accordingly resolved to make Law Comptroller General of the Finances of France. There was a material obstacle in his way. Law was a Protestant, and the regent, unscrupulous as he was himself, did not dare publicly to outrage the severe edicts which Louis XIV., in his bigot days, had fulminated against all heretics. Law soon let him know that there would be no difficulty on that head. He was ready at any moment to abjure his religion in the way of business. For decency's sake, however, it was judged proper he should previously be convinced and converted. A ghostly instructor was soon found, ready to accomplish his conversion in the shortest possible time. This was the Abbe Tencin, a profligate creature of the profligate Dubois, and like him working his way to ecclesiastical promotion and temporal wealth, by the basest means.
Under the instructions of the Abbe Tencin, Law soon mastered the mysteries and dogmas of the Catholic doctrine; and, after a brief course of ghostly training, declared himself thoroughly convinced and converted. To avoid the sneers and jests of the Parisian public the ceremony of abjuration took place at Melun. Law made a pious present of one hundred thousand livres to the Church of St. Roque, and the Abbe Tencin was rewarded for his edifying labors by sundry shares and bank bills; which he shrewdly took care to convert into cash, having as little faith in the system as in the piety of his new convert. A more grave and moral community might have been outraged by this scandalous farce; but the Parisians laughed at it with their usual levity, and contented themselves with making it the subject of a number of songs and epigrams.
Law now being orthodox in his faith, took out letters of naturalization, and having thus surmounted the intervening obstacles, was elevated by the regent to the post of comptroller-general. So accustomed had the community become to all juggles and transmutations in this hero of finance, that no one seemed shocked or astonished at his sudden elevation. On the contrary, being now considered perfectly established in place and power, he became more than ever the object of venal adoration. Men of rank and dignity thronged his antechamber, waiting patiently their turn for an audience; and titled dames demeaned themselves to take the front seats of the carriages of his wife and daughter, as if they had been riding with princesses of the blood royal. Law's head grew giddy with his elevation, and he began to aspire after aristocratical distinction. There was to be a court ball, at which several of the young noblemen were to dance in a ballet with the youthful king. Law requested that his son might be admitted into the ballet, and the regent consented. The young scions of nobility, however, were indignant and scouted the "intruding upstart." Their more worldly parents, fearful of displeasing the modern Midas, reprimanded them in vain. The striplings had not yet imbibed the passion for gain, and still held to their high blood. The son of the banker received slights and annoyances on all sides, and the public applauded them for their spirit. A fit of illness came opportunely to relieve the youth from an honor which would have cost him a world of vexations and affronts.
In February, 1720, shortly after Law's installment in office, a decree came out uniting the bank to the India Company, by which last name the whole establishment was now known. The decree stated that as the bank was royal, the king was bound to make good the value of its bills; that he committed to the company the government of the bank for fifty years, and sold to it fifty millions of stock belonging to him, for nine hundred millions; a simple advance of eighteen hundred per cent. The decree further declared, in the king's name, that he would never draw on the bank until the value of his drafts had first been lodged in it by his receivers-general.
The bank, it was said, had by this time issued notes to the amount of one thousand millions; being more paper than all the banks of Europe were able to circulate. To aid its credit, the receivers of the revenue were directed to take bank notes of the sub-receivers. All payments, also, of one hundred livres and upward were ordered to be made in banknotes. These compulsory measures for a short time gave a false credit to the bank, which proceeded to discount merchants' notes, to lend money on jewels, plate, and other valuables, as well as on mortgages.
Still further to force on the system an edict next appeared, forbidding any individual, or any corporate body, civil or religious, to hold in possession more than five hundred livres in current coin; that is to say, about seven louis d'ors: the value of the louis-d'or in paper being, at the time, seventy-two livres. All the gold and silver they might have above this pittance was to be brought to the royal bank and exchanged either for shares or bills.
As confiscation was the penalty of disobedience to this decree, and informers were assured a share of the forfeitures, a bounty was in a manner held out to domestic spies and traitors; and the most odious scrutiny was awakened into the pecuniary affairs of families and individuals. The very confidence between friends and relatives was unpaired, and all the domestic ties and virtues of society were threatened, until a general sentiment of indignation broke forth, that compelled the regent to rescind the odious decree. Lord Stairs, the British embassador, speaking of the system of espionage encouraged by this edict, observed that it was impossible to doubt that Law was a thorough Catholic, since he had thus established the inquisition, after having already proved transubstantiation, by changing specie into paper.
Equal abuses had taken place under the colonizing project. In his thousand expedients to amass capital, Law had sold parcels of land in Mississippi, at the rate of three thousand livres for a league square. Many capitalists had purchased estates large enough to constitute almost a principality; the only evil was, Law had sold a property which he could not deliver. The agents of police, who aided in recruiting the ranks of the colonists, had been guilty of scandalous impositions. Under pretense of taking up mendicants and vagabonds, they had scoured the streets at night, seizing upon honest mechanics, or their sons, and hurrying them to their crimping-houses, for the sole purpose of extorting money from them as a ransom. The populace was roused to indignation by these abuses. The officers of police were mobbed in the exercise of their odious functions, and several of them were killed; which put an end to this flagrant abuse of power.
In March, a most extraordinary decree of the council fixed the price of shares of the India Company at nine thousand livres each. All ecclesiastical communities and hospitals were now prohibited from investing money at interest, in anything but India stock. With all these props and stays, the system continued to totter. How could it be otherwise, under a despotic government that could alter the value of property at every moment? The very compulsory measures that were adopted to establish the credit of the bank hastened its fall; plainly showing there was a want of solid security.
Law caused pamphlets to be published, setting forth, in eloquent language, the vast profits that must accrue to holders of the stock, and the impossibility of the king's ever doing it any harm. On the very back of these assertions came forth an edict of the king, dated the 22d of May, wherein, under pretense of having reduced the value of his coin, it was declared necessary to reduce the value of his bank-notes one-half, and of the India shares from nine thousand to five thousand livres.
This decree came like a clap of thunder upon shareholders. They found one-half of the pretended value of the paper in their hands annihilated in an instant; and what certainty had they with respect to the other half? The rich considered themselves ruined; those in humbler circumstances looked forward to abject beggary.
The parliament seized the occasion to stand forth as the protector of the public, and refused to register the decree. It gained the credit of compelling the regent to retrace his step, though it is more probable he yielded to the universal burst of public astonishment and reprobation. On the 27th of May the edict was revoked, and bank bills were restored to their previous value. But the fatal blow had been struck; the delusion was at an end. Government itself had lost all public confidence, equally with the bank it had engendered, and which its own arbitrary acts had brought into discredit. "All Paris," says the regent's mother, in her letters, "has been mourning at the cursed decree which Law has persuaded my son to make. I have received anonymous letters stating that I have nothing to fear on my own account, but that my son shall be pursued with fire and sword."
The regent now endeavored to avert the odium of his ruinous schemes from himself. He affected to have suddenly lost confidence in Law, and, on the 29th of May, discharged bin from his employ as comptroller-general, and stationed a Swiss guard of sixteen men in his house. He even refused to see him, when, on the following day, he applied at the portal of the Palais Royal for admission; but having played off this farce before the public, he admitted him secretly the same night, by a private door, and continued as before to co-operate with him in his financial schemes.
On the first of June the regent issued a decree, permitting persons to have as much money as they pleased in their possession. Few, however, were in a state to benefit by this permission. There was a run upon the bank, but a royal ordinance immediately suspended payment, until further orders. To relieve the public mind, a city stock was created, of twenty-five millions, bearing an interest of two and a half per cent, for which bank notes were taken in exchange. The bank notes thus withdrawn from circulation were publicly burned before the Hotel de Ville. The public, however, had lost confidence in everything and everybody, and suspected fraud and collusion in those who pretended to burn the bills.
A general confusion now took place hi the financial world. Families who had lived in opulence found themselves suddenly reduced to indigence. Schemers who had been reveling in the delusion of princely fortune found their estates vanishing into thin air. Those who had any property remaining sought to secure it against reverses. Cautious persons found there was no safety for property in a country where the coin was continually shifting in value, and where a despotism was exercised over public securities, and even over the private purses of individuals. They began to send their effects into other countries; when lo! on the 20th of June a royal edict commanded them to bring back their effects, under penalty of forfeiting twice their value; and forbade them, under like penalty, from investing their money in foreign stocks. This was soon followed by another decree, forbidding any one to retain precious stones in his possession, or to sell them to foreigners; all must be deposited in the bank, in exchange for depreciating paper!
Execrations were now poured out on all sides against Law, and menaces of vengeance. What a contrast, in a short time, to the venal incense that was offered up to him! "This person," writes the regent's mother, "who was formerly worshiped as a god, is now not sure of his life. It is astonishing how greatly terrified he is. He is as a dead man; he is pale as a sheet, and it is said he can never get over it. My son is not dismayed, though he is threatened on all sides; and is very much amused with Law's terrors."
About the middle of July the last grand attempt was made by Law and the regent to keep up the system and provide for the immense emission of paper. A decree was fabricated, giving the India Company the entire monopoly of commerce, on condition that it would, in the course of a year, reimburse six hundred millions of livres of its bills, at the rate of fifty millions per month.
On the 17th this decree was sent to parliament to be registered. It at once raised a storm of opposition in that assembly, and a vehement discussion took place. While that was going on a disastrous scene was passing out of doors.
The calamitous effects of the system had reached the humblest concerns of human life. Provisions had risen to an enormous price; paper money was refused at all the shops; the people had not wherewithal to buy bread. It had been found absolutely indispensable to relax a little from the suspension of specie payments, and to allow small sums to be scantily exchanged for paper. The doors of the bank and the neighboring streets were immediately thronged with a famishing multitude, seeking cash for bank notes of ten livres. So great was the press and struggle that several persons were stifled and crushed to death. The mob carried three of the bodies to the courtyard of the Palais Royal. Some cried for the regent to come forth and behold the effect of his system; others demanded the death of Law, the impostor, who had brought this misery and rum upon the nation.
The moment was critical, the popular fury was rising to a tempest, when Le Blanc, the Secretary of State, stepped forth. He had previously sent for the military, and now only sought to gain tune. Singling out six or seven stout fellows, who seemed to be the ringleaders of the mob: "My good fellows," said he, calmly, "carry away these bodies and place them in some church, and then come back quickly to me for your pay." They immediately obeyed; a kind of funeral procession was formed; the arrival of troops dispersed those who lingered behind; and Paris was probably saved from an insurrection.
About ten o'clock in the morning, all being quiet, Law ventured to go in his carriage to the Palais Royal. He was saluted with cries and curses, as he passed along the streets; and he reached the Palais Royal in a terrible fright. The regent amused himself with his fears, but retained him with him, and sent off his carriage, which was assailed by the mob, pelted with stones, and the glasses shivered. The news of this outrage was communicated to parliament in the midst of a furious discussion of the decree for the commercial monopoly. The first president, who had been absent for a short time, re-entered, and communicated the tidings in a whimsical couplet:
"Messieurs, Messieurs! bonne nouvelle! Le carrosse de Law est reduite en carrelle!"
"Gentlemen, Gentlemen! good news! The carriage of Law is shivered to atoms!"
The members sprang up with joy; "And Law!" exclaimed they, "has he been torn to pieces?" The president was ignorant of the result of the tumult; whereupon the debate was cut short, the decree rejected, and the house adjourned; the members hurrying to learn the particulars. Such was the levity with which public affairs were treated at that dissolute and disastrous period.
On the following day there was an ordinance from the king, prohibiting all popular assemblages; and troops were stationed at various points, and in all public places. The regiment of guards was ordered to hold itself in readiness; and the musketeers to be at their hotels, with their horses ready saddled. A number of small offices were opened, where people might cash small notes, though with great delay and difficulty. An edict was also issued declaring that whoever should refuse to take bank notes in the course of trade should forfeit double the amount!
The continued and vehement opposition of parliament to the whole delusive system of finance had been a constant source of annoyance to the regent; but this obstinate rejection of his last grand expedient of a commercial monopoly was not to be tolerated. He determined to punish that intractable body. The Abbe Dubois and Law suggested a simple mode; it was to suppress the parliament altogether, being, as they observed, so far from useful that it was a constant impediment to the march of public affairs. The regent was half inclined to listen to their advice; but upon calmer consideration, and the advice of friends, he adopted a more moderate course. On the 20th of July, early in the morning, all the doors of the parliament-house were taken possession of by troops. Others were sent to surround the house of the first president, and others to the houses of the various members; who were all at first in great alarm, until an order from the king was put into their hands, to render themselves at Pontoise, in the course of two days, to which place the parliament was thus suddenly and arbitrarily transferred.
This despotic act, says Voltaire, would at any other time have caused an insurrection; but one half of the Parisians were occupied by their ruin, and the other half by their fancied riches, which were soon to vanish. The president and members of parliament acquiesced in the mandate without a murmur; they even went as if on a party of pleasure, and made every preparation to lead a joyous life in their exile. The musketeers, who held possession of the vacated parliament-house, a gay corps of fashionable young fellows, amused themselves with making songs and pasquinades, at the expense of the exiled legislators; and at length, to pass away time, formed themselves into a mock parliament; elected their presidents, kings, ministers, and advocates; took their seats in due form, arraigned a cat at their bar, in place of the Sieur Law, and, after giving it a "fair trial," condemned it to be hanged. In this manner public affairs and public institutions were lightly turned to jest.
As to the exiled parliament, it lived gayly and luxuriously at Pontoise, at the public expense; for the regent had furnished funds, as usual, with a lavish hand. The first president had the mansion of the Duke de Bouillon put at his disposal, already furnished, with a vast and delightful garden on the borders of a river. There he kept open house to all the members of parliament. Several tables were spread every day, all furnished luxuriously and splendidly; the most exquisite wines and liqueurs, the choicest fruits and refreshments, of all kinds, abounded. A number of small chariots for one and two horses were always at hand, for such ladies and old gentlemen as wished to take an airing after dinner, and card and billiard tables for such as chose to amuse themselves in that way until supper. The sister and the daughter of the first president did the honors of the house, and he himself presided there with an air of great ease, hospitality, and magnificence. It became a party of pleasure to drive from Paris to Pontoise, which was six leagues distant, and partake of the amusements and festivities of the place. Business was openly slighted; nothing was thought of but amusement. The regent and his government were laughed at, and made the subjects of continual pleasantries; while the enormous expenses incurred by this idle and lavish course of life more than doubled the liberal sums provided. This was the way in which the parliament resented their exile.
During all this time the system was getting more and more involved. The stock exchange had some time previously been removed to the Place Vendome; but the tumult and noise becoming intolerable to the residents of that polite quarter, and especially to the chancellor, whose hotel was there, the Prince and Princess Carignan, both deep gamblers in Mississippi stock, offered the extensive garden of the Hotel de Soissons as a rallying-place for the worshipers of Mammon. The offer was accepted. A number of barracks were immediately erected in the garden, as offices for the stock-brokers, and an order was obtained from the regent, under pretext of police regulations, that no bargain should be valid unless concluded in these barracks. The rent of them immediately mounted to a hundred livres a month for each, and the whole yielded these noble proprietors an ignoble revenue of half a million of livres.
The mania for gain, however, was now at an end. A universal panic succeeded. "Sauve qui peut!" was the watchword. Every one was anxious to exchange falling paper for something of intrinsic and permanent value. Since money was not to be had, jewels, precious stones, plate, porcelain, trinkets of gold and silver, all commanded any price in paper. Land was bought at fifty years' purchase, and he esteemed himself happy who could get it even at this price. Monopolies now became the rage among the noble holders of paper. The Duke de la Force bought up nearly all the tallow, grease, and soap; others the coffee and spices; others hay and oats. Foreign exchanges were almost impracticable. The debts of Dutch and English merchants were paid in this fictitious money, all the coin of the realm having disappeared. All the relations of debtor and creditor were confounded. With one thousand crowns one might pay a debt of eighteen thousand livres!
The regent's mother, who once exulted in the affluence of bank paper, now wrote in a very different tone: "I have often wished," said she in her letters, "that these bank-notes were in the depths of the infernal regions. They have given my son more trouble than relief. Nobody in France has a penny.... My son was once popular, but since the arrival of this cursed Law, he is hated more and more. Not a week passes, without my receiving letters filled with frightful threats, and speaking of him as a tyrant. I have just received one threatening him with poison. When I showed it to him, he did nothing but laugh."
In the meantime, Law was dismayed by the increasing troubles, and terrified at the tempest he had raised. He was not a man of real courage; and fearing for his personal safety, from popular tumult, or the despair of ruined individuals, he again took refuge in the palace of the regent. The latter, as usual, amused himself with his terrors, and turned every new disaster into a jest; but he too began to think of his own security.
In pursuing the schemes of Law, he had no doubt calculated to carry through his term of government with ease and splendor; and to enrich himself, his connections, and his favorites; and had hoped that the catastrophe of the system would not take place until after the expiration of the regency.
He now saw his mistake; that it was impossible much longer to prevent an explosion; and he determined at once to get Law out of the way, and then to charge him with the whole tissue of delusions of this paper alchemy. He accordingly took occasion of the recall of parliament in December, 1720, to suggest to Law the policy of his avoiding an encounter with that hostile and exasperated body. Law needed no urging to the measure. His only desire was to escape from Paris and its tempestuous populace. Two days before the return of parliament he took his sudden and secret departure. He traveled in a chaise bearing the arms of the regent, and was escorted by a kind of safeguard of servants in the duke's livery. His first place of refuge was an estate of the regent's, about six leagues from Paris, from whence he pushed forward to Bruxelles.
As soon as Law was fairly out of the way, the Duke of Orleans summoned a council of the regency, and informed them that they were assembled to deliberate on the state of the finances, and the affairs of the India Company. Accordingly La Houssaye, comptroller-general, rendered a perfectly clear statement, by which it appeared that there were bank bills in circulation to the amount of two milliards, seven hundred millions of livres, without any evidence that this enormous sum had been emitted in virtue of any ordinance from the general assembly of the India Company, which alone had the right to authorize such emissions.
The council was astonished at this disclosure, and looked to the regent for explanation. Pushed to the extreme, the regent avowed that Law had emitted bills to the amount of twelve hundred millions beyond what had been fixed by ordinances, and in contradiction to express prohibitions; that the thing being done, he, the regent, had legalized or rather covered the transaction, by decrees ordering such emissions, which decrees he had antedated.
A stormy scene ensued between the regent and the Duke de Bourbon, little to the credit of either, both having been deeply implicated in the cabalistic operations of the system. In fact, the several members of the council had been among the most venal "beneficiaries" of the scheme, and had interests at stake which they were anxious to secure. From all the circumstances of the case, I am inclined to think that others were more to blame than Law, for the disastrous effects of his financial projects. His bank, had it been confined to its original limits, and left to the control of its own internal regulations, might have gone on prosperously, and been of great benefit to the nation. It was an institution fitted for a free country; but unfortunately it was subjected to the control of a despotic government, that could, at its pleasure, alter the value of the specie within its vaults, and compel the most extravagant expansions of its paper circulation. The vital principle of a bank is security in the regularity of its operations, and the immediate convertibility of its paper into coin; and what confidence could be reposed in an institution or its paper promises, when the sovereign could at any moment centuple those promises in the market, and seize upon all the money in the bank? The compulsory measures used, likewise, to force bank-notes into currency, against the judgment of the public, was fatal to the system; for credit must be free and uncontrolled as the common air. The regent was the evil spirit of the system, that forced Law on to an expansion of his paper currency far beyond what he had ever dreamed of. He it was that in a manner compelled the unlucky projector to devise all kinds of collateral companies and monopolies, by which to raise funds to meet the constantly and enormously increasing emissions of shares and notes. Law was but like a poor conjurer in the hands of a potent spirit that he has evoked, and that obliges him to go on, desperately and ruinously, with his conjurations. He only thought at the outset to raise the wind, but the regent compelled him to raise the whirlwind.
The investigation of the affairs of the company by the council resulted in nothing beneficial to the public. The princes and nobles who had enriched themselves by all kinds of juggles and extortions, escaped unpunished, and retained the greater part of their spoils. Many of the "suddenly rich," who had risen from obscurity to a giddy height of imaginary prosperity, and had indulged in all kinds of vulgar and ridiculous excesses, awoke as out of a dream, in their original poverty, now made more galling and humiliating by their transient elevation.
The weight of the evil, however, fell on more valuable classes of society; honest tradesmen and artisans, who had been seduced away from the safe pursuits of industry, to the specious chances of speculation. Thousands of meritorious families also, once opulent, had been reduced to indigence, by a too great confidence in government. There was a general derangement in the finances, that long exerted a baneful influence over the national prosperity; but the most disastrous effects of the system were upon the morals and manners of the nation. The faith of engagements, the sanctity of promises in affairs of business, were at an end. Every expedient to grasp present profit, or to evade present difficulty, was tolerated. While such deplorable laxity of principle was generated in the busy classes, the chivalry of France had soiled their pennons; and honor and glory, so long the idols of the Gallic nobility, had been tumbled to the earth, and trampled in the dirt of the stock-market.
As to Law, the originator of the system, he appears eventually to have profited but little by his schemes. "He was a quack," says Voltaire, "to whom the state was given to be cured, but who poisoned it with his drugs, and who poisoned himself." The effects which he left behind in France were sold at a low price and the proceeds dissipated. His landed estates were confiscated. He carried away with him barely enough to maintain himself, his wife, and daughter, with decency. The chief relic of his immense fortune was a great diamond, which he was often obliged to pawn. He was in England in 1721, and was presented to George the First. He returned shortly afterward to the continent; shifting about from place to place, and died in Venice, in 1729. His wife and daughter, accustomed to live with the prodigality of princesses, could not conform to their altered fortunes, but dissipated the scanty means left to them, and sank into abject poverty. "I saw his wife," says Voltaire, "at Bruxelles, as much humiliated as she had been haughty and triumphant in Paris." An elder brother of Law remained in France, and was protected by the Duchess of Bourbon. His descendants have acquitted themselves honorably, in various public employments; and one of them is the Marquis Lauriston, some time lieutenant-general and peer of France.