Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVIII: The Introduction of Assignats, and Retirement of M. Necker. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XVIII: The Introduction of Assignats, and Retirement of M. Necker. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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The Introduction of Assignats, and Retirement of M. Necker.
The members of the Finance Committee proposed to the Constituent Assembly to discharge the public debt by creating nearly ninety million sterling of paper money, to be secured on church lands, and to be of compulsory circulation.1 This was a very simple method of bringing the finances in order; but the probability was that in thus getting rid of the difficulties which the administration of a great country always presents, an immense capital would be expended in a few years, and the seeds of new revolutions be sown by the disposal of that capital. In fact, without such vast pecuniary resources, neither the interior troubles of France nor the foreign war could have so easily taken place. Several of the deputies who urged the Constituent Assembly to make this enormous emission of paper money were certainly unconscious of its disastrous effects; but they were fond of the power which the command of such a treasure was about to give them.
M. Necker made a strong opposition to the assignat system; first, because, as we have already mentioned, he did not approve of the confiscation of all the church lands and would always, in accordance with his principles, have excepted from it the archbishoprics, bishoprics, and, above all, the smaller benefices (presbytères): for the curates have never been sufficiently paid in France, although, of all classes of priests, they are the most useful. The effects of paper money, its progressive depreciation, and the unprincipled speculations to which that depreciation gave rise were explained in M. Necker’s report, with an energy too fully confirmed by the event.2 Lotteries, to which several members of the Constituent Assembly and, in particular, the Bishop of Autun (Talleyrand), very properly declared themselves adverse, are a mere game of chance; while the profit resulting from the perpetual fluctuation of paper money is founded almost entirely on the art of deceiving, at every moment of the day, in regard to the value either of the currency or of the articles purchased with it. The lower class, thus transformed into gamblers, acquire by the facility of irregular gains a distaste for steady labor; finally, the debtors who discharge themselves in an unfair manner are no longer people of strict probity in any other transaction. M. Necker foretold, in 1790, all that has since happened in regard to the assignats—the deterioration of public wealth by the low rate at which the national lands would be sold, and that series of sudden fortunes and sudden failures which necessarily perverts the character of those who gain as of those who lose; for so great a latitude of fear and hope produces agitations too violent for human nature.
In opposing the system of paper money M. Necker did not confine himself to the easy task of attacking; he proposed, as a counter-expedient, the establishment of a bank on a plan of which the principal parts have since been adopted,3 and in which he was to have introduced as a security, a portion of the church lands sufficient to restore the finances to the most prosperous condition. He also insisted strongly, but without effect, that the members of the Board of Treasury should be admitted into the Assembly, that they might discuss questions of finance in the absence of the minister, who had no right to be there. Finally, M. Necker, before quitting office, made use, for the last time, of the respect that he inspired in directly refusing to the Constituent Assembly, and in particular to Camus, a member, a communication of the “Red Book.”4
This book contained the secret expenditure of the state under the preceding reign and under that of Louis XVI. It contained not a single article ordered by M. Necker; yet it was he who encountered a most disagreeable struggle, to prevent the Assembly from being put in possession of a register which bore evidence of the misconduct of Louis XV, and of the too great bounty of Louis XVI: his bounty only—for M. Necker made a point of communicating that in the space of sixteen years, the King and Queen had taken for themselves only eleven million sterling of this secret expenditure; but a number of persons then alive might be exposed by giving publicity to the large sums that they had received. These persons happened to be M. Necker’s enemies, because he had blamed the lavishness of the Court toward them: still it was he who ventured to displease the Assembly by preventing the publicity of the faults of his antagonists. So many virtues in so many ways, generosity, disinterestedness, perseverance, had in former times been rewarded by public confidence, and were now more than ever entitled to it. But that which should inspire a profound interest in whosoever has formed an idea of the situation of M. Necker was seeing a man of the finest talents, and highest character, placed between parties so opposite, and duties so different, that the complete sacrifice of himself, his reputation, and his happiness could not succeed in reconciling either prejudices to principles or opinions to interests.
Had Louis XVI allowed himself to be effectually guided by the advice of M. Necker, it would have been the duty of that minister not to retire. But the partisans of the old government advised the King, as they perhaps would do at present, never to follow the counsel of a man who had shown attachment to liberty: that, in their eyes, is a crime never to be forgiven. Besides, M. Necker perceived that the King, dissatisfied with the part allotted to him in the constitution, and weary of the conduct of the Assembly, had determined to withdraw from such a situation. Had he addressed himself to M. Necker, to concert with him his departure, his minister would, no doubt, have felt it incumbent on him to second it with all his means, so cruel and dangerous did the situation of the monarch appear to him! And yet it was extremely contrary to the natural wishes of a man called to his station by the wish of the people, to pass into a foreign territory: but if the King and Queen did not intimate to him their intentions in that point, was it for him to call forth confidential communications? Things had proceeded to such an extremity that a man, to possess influence, must have been either factious or counter-revolutionary, and neither of these characters was suitable to M. Necker.
He took, therefore, the determination of resigning, and, doubtless, it was at this time his only proper course; but always guided by a wish to carry his sacrifices for the public as far as possible, he left two million livres of his fortune5 as a deposit in the treasury, precisely because he had foretold that the paper money, with which the dividends were about to be paid, would soon be of no value. He was unwilling, as a private individual, to set an example which might be injurious to the operation which he blamed as minister. Had M. Necker possessed very great wealth, this manner of abandoning his property would even then have been very extraordinary; but as these two million formed more than the half of a fortune reduced by seven years of a ministry without salary, the world will perhaps be surprised that a man who had acquired his property by his own exertions should thus feel the necessity of sacrificing it to the slightest sentiment of delicacy.
My father took his departure on the 8th of September, 1790. I was unable to follow him at that time because I was ill; and the necessity of remaining behind was the more painful to me as I was apprehensive of the difficulties he might encounter on his journey. In fact, four days after his departure, a courier brought me a letter from him with notice of his being arrested at Arcis-sur-Aube. The people, persuaded that he had lost his credit in the Assembly only from having sacrificed the cause of the nation to that of the King, endeavored to prevent him from continuing his journey. The thing which, of all others, made M. Necker suffer most in this situation was the heart-rending disquietude that his wife felt for him; she loved him with a feeling so sincere and impassioned that he allowed himself, perhaps injudiciously, to speak of her, and of her grief, in the letter which on his departure he addressed to the Assembly. The times, it must be confessed, were not suitable to domestic affection; but that sensibility which a great statesman was unable to restrain in any circumstance of his life was exactly the source of his characteristic qualities—penetration and goodness. He who is capable of true and profound emotion is never intoxicated by power; and it is by this, above all, that we recognize in a minister true greatness of soul.
The Constituent Assembly decided that M. Necker should be allowed to continue his journey. He was set at liberty and proceeded to Basel, but not without still running great hazards: he performed this distressing journey by the same road, across the same provinces where, thirteen months before, he had been carried in triumph. The aristocrats did not fail to make a boast of his sufferings, without considering, or, rather without being willing to allow, that he had put himself into that situation for the sake of defending them, and of defending them solely in the spirit of justice: for he well knew that nothing could restore him to their good opinion; and it was certainly not in any such expectation, but from attachment to his duty, that he made a voluntary sacrifice, in thirteen months, of a popularity of twenty years.
He departed with an anguished heart, having lost the fruits of a long career; nor was the French nation likely perhaps ever to find a minister who loved it with equal feeling. What was there, then, so satisfactory to anyone in such a misfortune? What! the incorrigible will exclaim, was he not a partisan of that liberty which has done us all so much mischief? Assuredly I will not tell you all the good that this liberty would have done you had you been willing to adopt her when she offered herself to you pure and unstained; but if we suppose that M. Necker was mistaken along with Cato and Sydney, with Chatham and Washington, ought such an error, the error of all generous minds during two thousand years, to extinguish all gratitude for his virtues?
[1. ] The first assignats were issued on December 21, 1789 (worth 400 million francs). Nine months later, in September 1790, the Assembly decided to limit the assignats to 1.2 million francs. In his Reflections (esp. 348–57), Burke denounced in unambiguous terms this practice, which in his view was both politically irresponsible and financially unsound.
[2. ] Necker’s Mémoire du Premier Ministre des finances lu à l’Assemblée nationale le 6 mars 1790 and his following Mémoire du 12 mars and Observations sur le rapport fait au nom du Comité des finances (March 1790) express his deep concern for the financial situation of the country and recommend concrete measures to solve the crisis.
[3. ] The Bank of France, created under Napoléon in January 1800.
[4. ] The Red Book contained the secret expenses of the King (both Louis XVI and Louis XV), including the pensions granted to the King’s courtiers.
[5. ] Necker left as a “warranty” his house in Paris, his country house, and his bonds, worth two million livres. Under the Consulate, Madame de Staël attempted to recover a part of Necker’s money. At the time of her death, in 1817, her assets were worth five million livres.