Assignats were paper money issued by the National Assembly in France from 1789 to 1796, during the French Revolution. Backed by the value of properties formerly held by the Catholic Church, 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.
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. 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 (Sept. 1790).
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, coupled with the organized opposition of counter-revolutionaries, led to their losing value. Patriotic revolutionaries blamed the assignats' depreciation on foreign conspiracies. There was some basis for these suspicions. 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.”
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. In 1796, the Directoire issued Mandats, a currency in the form of land warrants to replace the assignats, although these too quickly failed.
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.
- 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 and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
- Media related to Assignat at Wikimedia Commons