Communities Made of Money: Coin, Notes, and Credit in the European Eighteenth Century

AHA Session 186
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom H (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Paul Cheney, University of Chicago
Bill Maurer, University of California, Irvine

Session Abstract

Classical economic theory and the economic history derived from it usually treat money as a veil: something transparent, something to be looked “through” in order to see the values produced by the real economy. Money in this account is a mutual convenience and a common good. Communities use money, but they are neither formed nor broken by it. Rejecting this model and drawing on work in economic anthropology, the three papers in this panel look directly “at” money in order to assess its role in both the shaping and disrupting of networks in Europe, c. 1685-1800.

Livesey proposes that the generalized use of transferable credit tools in eighteenth-century France created an increasingly integrated community. Differences of language, religion, and status appeared to form clear barriers in this society, yet certain forms of debt crossed these divisions with ease. People’s experience with a general equivalent—in the form of money or of computational facts—meant that they lived in a world of universals long before they formulated a language of universal rights. In developing the latter, they moved to create a political vision that coincided with their social experiences.

In contrast, Desan and Spang look at episodes in which political and intellectual ideals were turned into policy and thereby disrupted well-established networks of exchange. Desan’s paper explores both the animating vision and the unintended consequences of John Locke’s intervention into the English re-coinage debate of the late seventeenth century. Much as he imagined human beings as initially identical blank slates, so Locke fantasized about a money supply that would bear no marks of difference. Re-minting all the kingdom’s specie simultaneously, he argued, would produce a currency that was perfectly and perpetually fungible: a marker of quantities divorced from all qualities. Spang focuses on bills rather than coins, but the underlying story is remarkably similar: proponents of the assignats hoped that the introduction of a single paper money would solidify French commitment to the revolution as it facilitated circulation on a nationwide basis. Results in both cases greatly disappointed expectations. In England, the consequences of re-coinage were anything but uniform and fell especially heavily on the poor. In France, elaborate anti-counterfeiting procedures meant that the first assignats were issued in such large denominations that the clogged more payment circuits than they opened.

Drawing both on obscure archival materials and on canonical texts of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political thought, this panel frames economic questions in a manner that engages the work of cultural, social, legal, and intellectual historians. While making use of recent insights in the history of economic thought, it innovates by its emphasis on daily practice and its attention to questions of social difference. National and international political discourse today is replete with financial fantasies and inflationary fears; this panel turns to the long eighteenth century to explore the fiction and fact of modern money in the era of emergent capitalism.

See more of: AHA Sessions