Assignats were paper money issued by the National Assembly in France from 1789 to 1796, during the French Revolution. The assignats were issued after the confiscation of church properties in 1790 because the government was bankrupt. The government thought that the financial problems could be solved by printing certificates representing the value of church properties. These church lands became known as biens nationaux (“national goods”). Assignats were used to successfully retire a significant portion of the national debt as they were accepted as legitimate payment by domestic and international creditors. Certain precautions not taken concerning their excessive reissue and comingling with general currency in circulation caused hyperinflation. Additionally, external forces contributed to hyperinflation in this time. The British, Belgian, and Swiss counterfeited the currency industrially - according to Dillaye: “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” leading to nearly two counterfeit Assignats for every genuine one.
Originally meant as bonds, they evolved into a currency used as legal tender. As there was no control over the amount to be printed, the value of the assignats exceeded that of the confiscated properties. This caused massive hyperinflation. In the beginning of 1792, they had lost most of their nominal value. In 1796, the Directoire issued Mandats, a currency in the form of land warrants to replace the assignats, although these too quickly failed.
This hyperinflation was stirred up by repeated food shortages. Instead of solving the financial problems, the assignats became a catalyst for (food) riots. Instability continued after the abolition of the monarchy, exacerbated by the wars France faced. This situation impeded the implementation of good financial policies that would reduce debts. Bills such as the Maximum Price Act of 1793 aimed to regulate inflation.
When the Directoire came into power in 1795 the Maximum Price Act was lifted. Hyperinflation reemerged and in the next four years Paris was the stage of yet more riots.
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.
- Bordo, Michael D., and Eugene N. White, "A Tale of Two Currencies: British and French Finance during the Napoleonic Wars," Journal of Economic History (1991) 51#2 pp 303–16 in JSTOR
- 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: Harvard University Press, 2015)
- Media related to Assignat at Wikimedia Commons