General maximum

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The General Maximum or Law of the Maximum was a law created during the course of the French Revolution as an extension of the Law of Suspects on 29 September 1793. It succeeded the 4 May 1793 loi du maximum which had the same purpose: setting price limits, detering price gouging, and allowing for the continued flow of food supply to the people of France.[1]

Historical conditions enabling the General Maximum[edit]

Years of revolution, international conflicts, and poor climate conditions had led to an economic environment with very high inflation and food shortages throughout France.[2] This view of causation put forward by Eugene White in his 1995 publication [3] is disputed very much by the earlier account of Andrew Dickson White, Professor of History at Cornell, who on the basis of his extensive, well footnoted collection of contemporary documents gives the much more plausible view that the ever greater and ultimately uncontrolled issuance of paper money authorised by the National Assembly was at the root of France's economic failure and most certainly the cause of its increasingly rampant inflation [4] Although it varied according to region, the maximum price for first necessity goods was about one third higher than the 1790 prices, while the legal maximum fixed to the wages was about half higher than the average level in 1790[citation needed]. Committee members feared new and more radical revolutionaries were being created by the crisis[citation needed]. This fear was intensified on 5 September 1793 when the sans-culottes invaded the National Convention demanding "Food- and to have it, force for the law."[5]

The General Maximum is enacted[edit]

“The municipal police shall fine everyone who buys or sells merchandise for more than the Maximum… double the value of the item sold, payable to the person who denounced them; they will be recorded on the list of suspect persons and treated as such. The buyer will not be subject of these penalties if he denounces the seller’s violation and each merchant must post in his shop a table of the Maximum or the highest price of the merchandise.” Article 7 of the General Maximum, 29 September 1793[6]

On 29 September 1793, The Law of Suspects was extended to include the General Maximum. Although the Law of Suspects was initially created to deal with counter-revolutionaries loyal to the crown, hunger and poverty were seen by the Committee as equally dangerous to both the national interest and their positions within the government.[7] As decreed, the law set forth uniform price ceilings on grain, flour, meat, oil, onions, soap, firewood, leather, and paper; the sale of these products were regulated at the maximum price set in 1790 value, plus one-third.[8][9]

Written into the text of the General Maximum law were a series of regulations and fines. Merchants had to post their maximum rates in a conspicuous location for all consumers to see and were subject to repeated inspections by police and local officials. Furthermore, the law gave legal protection to consumers who reported violations of the Maximum to local officials. Provided the consumer did not have a role in the infraction and gave report to the proper authorities denouncing the merchant, fines would only be levied against shop owners.

Effects of the General Maximum on the French public[edit]

In 1793, France was still in the Revolution and fighting wars with Austria, Prussia, Great Britain and Spain. The government continued to function during the economic and political crises through a series of loans, bonds and tax increases and increasingly larger amounts of paper money issuance in a vain attempt to stimulate the economy.[10] Matters were worsened by food shortages which had seemingly resulted from bad harvests but more importantly from unwillingness of farmers to bring products to the market at prices below the cost of production; however, the shortages were widely blamed on speculators, hoarders and price gougers.

The General Maximum was written with an eye towards businessmen who were profiting from the demise of the French economy. However, in practice, the law targeted local shopkeepers, butchers, bakers and farmers—the merchants who were profiting the least from the economic crisis.[11] With the General Maximum, the Convention offered the people someone to blame for their hunger and poverty. Furthermore, due to the Law of Suspects, when a citizen informed the government about a merchant who was in violation of the law, he had done his civic duty.[12]

Conclusion[edit]

Turning price gouging and food hoarding into crimes was met with limited success. With respect to its overt intention of ensuring that people were able to purchase food at a reasonable rate, the Maximum was mostly a failure. Some merchants, finding themselves forced to sell their goods for a price lower than what it cost to create it (i.e. cost of baking bread, growing vegetables, etc.,) chose to hide their expensive goods from the market, either for personal use or for sale on the black market.[13] The National Convention's attempt to enforce the General Maximum by repressing, detaining and executing those who didn't respect it made of it one of the symbols of the Terror. However, the General Maximum was very successful in deflecting a volatile political issue away from the Committee of Public Safety, enabling them to focus on larger political issues.[14]

Ultimately, the General Maximum proved to be controversial and unenforceable. In December 1794, it was repealed.

References[edit]

  1. ^ White, E. "The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770–1815." The Journal of Economic History 1995, p 244
  2. ^ White, E. "The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770–1815." The Journal of Economic History 1995, p 236-238
  3. ^ White, E. "The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770–1815." The Journal of Economic History 1995, p 236-238
  4. ^ White, A.D, "Fiat Money Inflation in France" 1912, The White Collection at the Cornell University, http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/collections/subjects/frrev.html
  5. ^ Palmer, RR. Twelve Who Ruled. Princeton University Press, 1970, p. 47
  6. ^ Darrow, M. "Economic Terror in the City: The General Maximum in Montauban." French Historical Studies 1991, p 498
  7. ^ Darrow, M. "Economic Terror in the City: The General Maximum in Montauban." French Historical Studies 1991, p 500
  8. ^ Darrow, M. "Economic Terror in the City: The General Maximum in Montauban." French Historical Studies 1991, p 498
  9. ^ White, E. "The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770–1815." The Journal of Economic History 1995, p 244
  10. ^ AD White "Fiat Money Inflation In France", 1912 The White Collection at the Cornell University library http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/collections/subjects/frrev.html
  11. ^ Darrow, M. "Economic Terror in the City: The General Maximum in Montauban." French Historical Studies 1991, p 503-505
  12. ^ Darrow, M. "Economic Terror in the City: The General Maximum in Montauban." French Historical Studies 1991, p 511
  13. ^ Darrow, M. "Economic Terror in the City: The General Maximum in Montauban." French Historical Studies 1991, p 517-519
  14. ^ Darrow, M. "Economic Terror in the City: The General Maximum in Montauban." French Historical Studies 1991, p 523-525

Further sources[edit]

  • Darrow, Margaret H. . "Economic Terror in the City: The General Maximum in Montauban." French Historical Studies 17, No. 2 (1991): 498–525.
  • Popkin, Jeremy. A History of Modern France, third edition (2006)
  • White, Eugene N. . "The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770–1815." The Journal of Economic History 55, No. 2 (1995): 227–255.