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French Revolutionary Banknote

Year 1792
Object no. LDBRU:2024.3
Size 98 x 59 mm
Location LMA
Assignat of 25 sols, printed following the French Revolution of 1789

This is a small banknote, known as an assignat, printed in France in 1792, the ‘fourth year of freedom’ (‘l’an 4 de la liberté’) after the Revolution of 1789. Assignats were introduced by the revolutionary French government from April 1791 in reaction to extreme shortages of metals needed to mint coinage following the Revolution. The note was printed by Jean-Pierre Droz working for the Domaines Nationaux, the body responsible for producing and circulating the notes. In the lower right hand corner is the printed signature of Joseph-Émilie-François Hervé de Beaulieu, minister of finance in mid-1792.

Originally acting as records of purchased bonds, assignats soon circulated as currency. They derived their value from ecclesiastical land expropriated by the government, rather than being underpinned by a system of metallic standards. Several million assignats were produced in varying denominations; this one was worth 25 sols, one of the smallest denominations produced.

Assignats were widely forged. Embossed stamps (timbres secs) are present in the blank circles as anti-counterfeiting measures. A legend on the assignat itself reminds users of the punishment for forgery under the Law of 4 Jan. 1792 (‘La Loi punit de mort le contrefacteur. La nation récompense le dénonciateur’, ‘The Law punishes counterfeiters by death. The Nation recompenses those who turn people in.’). However, this assignat appears to have been issued by the government.

Given this forgery and continual economic uncertainty, the assignats rapidly and uncontrollably depreciated in value, leading to extreme hyperinflation. They were therefore abandoned. On 19 February 1796, the authorities in central Paris publicly burnt a vast stock of the notes and the machines used to make them.

There is no suggestion that this banknote belonged to, or was used by, anyone connected with the Thames Tunnel. However, this banknote was one of those in use in the period during which both M.I. Brunel and his future wife Sophia Kingdom were living in France under the Revolutionary government. The economic instability and political turbulence of the ‘revolutionary decade’ ultimately caused M.I. Brunel to flee France for the United States in June 1793, and led to the imprisonment of Sophia Kingdom in 1793-94. This note is a direct production of that instability and turbulence; indeed, assignats have been understood more broadly as the ultimate emblems of both revolutionary attempts to reshape France, and of their failure to do so.

Further Reading
Antonietti, Guy. Les ministres des finances de la Révolution française au Second Empire. Dictionnaire biographique, 1790-1814, pp. 99-112. Paris: Comité pour l’histoire économique et financière de la France / IGPDE, 2008
Aubin, Christian. ‘Les Assignats sous la Révolution française: un exemple d’hyperinflation’, Revue économique, 42 (1991), 4, pp. 745-61
Lestapis, Arnaud de. ‘Émigration et faux assignats: I’, Revue des Deux Mondes (Sept. 1955), pp. 238-51
Lestapis, Arnaud de. ‘Émigration et faux assignats: II’, Revue des Deux Mondes (Oct. 1955), pp. 451-64
Rouanet, Louis, Bryan P. Cutsinger, and Joshua S. Ingber. ‘Assignats or Death: The Politics and Dynamics of Hyperinflation in Revolutionary France’, European Economic Review, 157 (2023),
Spang, Rebecca L. Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017
Taws, Richard. The Politics of the Provisional: Art and Ephemera in Revolutionary France, pp. 13-41. Philadelphia: Penn State University Press, 2013
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