Assignats were paper money issued by the National Assembly in France from 1789 to 1796, during the French Revolution, to address imminent bankruptcy. They were backed by the value of properties formerly held by the Catholic Church, which were confiscated, on the motion of Mirabeau, by the Assembly on 2 November 1789, and the crown lands, which had been taken over by the nation on 7 October. The initial issue was for 400 million francs, at an interest rate of 5%. The assignats were immediately a source of political controversy. While their proponents, like other eighteenth-century advocates of "land banks," argued that land was a more stable source of value than was gold or silver, the assignats' opponents saw them as based on an illegitimate seizure of property.
The assignats were first to be paid to the creditors of the state. With these the creditors could purchase national land, the assignats having, for this purpose, the preference over other forms of money. If the creditor did not care to purchase land, it was supposed that he could obtain the face value for them from those who desired land. Those assignats which were returned to the state as purchase-money were to be cancelled, and the whole issue, it was argued, would consequently disappear as the national lands were distributed.
Originally meant as bonds, the assignats were re-defined as legal tender (assignats-monnaie) in April 1790 to address the liquidity crisis provoked by the political, social, and cultural instability of the Revolution. As soon as the assignats started to circulate, their value decreased by 5 percent. When the cost of reimbursing Old Regime venal office holders for their properties (judgeships, military ranks etc.) added yet more to the Revolution's inherited debts, the National Assembly voted by a narrow margin to issue additional assignats in September 1790, initially of an additional 800,000,000 francs. By September 1791, the value of the assignats had depreciated by 18-20 percent.
The properties backing the assignats were renamed biens nationaux (“national goods”) and auctioned by district-level authorities. Through the sale of these properties, assignats were used to successfully retire a significant portion of the national debt. However, since these land sales were their original intent, the assignats were issued only in large denominations (50, 100, 200, and 1000 livres) that worked poorly as a daily medium of exchange. Moreover, the National Assembly never mandated that assignats and Old Regime coins (which remained in circulation) had to be exchanged on par. Already in fall 1790, the National Assembly itself was paying a 7.5% commission to exchange large denomination assignats for smaller coins. By the end of 1791, the discount rate was often 20% or more. These limits on the bills' practical use, and further issues eventually totalling 3.75 billion francs, coupled with the organized opposition of counter-revolutionaries, led to their losing value. Patriotic revolutionaries blamed the assignats' depreciation on foreign conspiracies. Dillaye wrote that the British, Belgian, and Swiss counterfeited the currency industrially: “Seventeen manufacturing establishments were in full operation in London, with a force of four hundred men devoted to the production of false and forged Assignats.”
After the outbreak of war, the fall of the monarchy, and the declaration of a Republic, the National Convention mandated that bills and coins exchange on par, but this law could never be enforced. Instead, the assignats continued depreciating. Rising prices and food shortages exacerbated public unrest. Bills such as the Maximum Price Act of 1793 aimed to address this situation. The Thermidorian Convention lifted the Maximum Price Act in the name of "economic freedom" and the assignats lost almost all value over the next year. by June 1794 the total number of assignats aggregated nearly 8 billion, of which only 2,464 million had returned to the treasury and been destroyed. The extension of the "maximum" to all commodities only increased the confusion. Trade was paralysed and all manufacturing establishments were closed down. By 1796 the issues had reached 45.5 billion francs, excluding counterfeits, and the Directoire issued Mandats, a currency in the form of land warrants to replace the assignats, although these too quickly failed and were received back by the state at a steep discount.
Napoleon opposed all forms of fiat currency. By the 1830s-1840s, the assignats and other papers issued during the Revolution had become collectors' items.
Between 1798 and 1799, the revolutionary French forces established the Roman Republic, which also issued assignats (Italian: assegnati). They were issued by the law of 23 Fructidor VI (14 Sept 1798). The currency used was paolo or giulio, the older currency of the Papal States. Roman Republic also issued coins denominated in baiocco and scudo.
The term assignat is similar to the Russian word assignatsia which means "banknote". Assignatsionny rubl (assignation ruble) was used in Russia from 1769 until 1 January 1849. This had no connection to the French Revolution.
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Ingram, Thomas Allan (1911). "Assignats". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 781–782.
- Levasseur, E. "The Assignats: A Study in the Finances of the French Revolution". Journal of Political Economy. 2: 182. doi:10.1086/250201.
- Spang, Rebecca (2015). Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. pp. 57–96.
- Ingram 1911.
- Levasseur, E. "The Assignats: A Study in the Finances of the French Revolution". Journal of Political Economy. 2: 185. doi:10.1086/250201.
- Spang, Rebecca (2015). Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. p. 159.
- Bordo, Michael D.; White, Eugene N. (1991). "A Tale of Two Currencies: British and French Finance during the Napoleonic Wars". Journal of Economic History. 51 (2): 303–16. doi:10.1017/s002205070003895x. JSTOR 2122576.
- Bosher, John F. French Finances, 1770-1795: From Business to Bureaucracy (1970)
- Harris, Seymour E. The Assignats (1930)
- Spang, Rebecca L., Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution (London and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
- Media related to Assignat at Wikimedia Commons