Difficulty of feeding large towns — Activity of speculators — Situation at Lyons — Demand for maximum — Convention fixes price of wheat and food-stuffs — Danger of fixing retail prices — Maximum abolished by reactionaries — Fall in value of paper currency — Bankruptcy threatens State — Necker tries to raise money — Manufacture of false assignats
One of the great difficulties in every Revolution is the feeding of the large towns. The large towns of modern times are centres of various industries that are developed chiefly for the sake of the rich or for export trade; these two branches fail whenever any crisis occurs, and the question then arises of how these great urban agglomerations are to be fed.
France had entered upon this phase. Emigration and war, especially the war with England which prevented exportation and all the foreign trade by which such towns as Marseilles, Lyons, Nantes and Bordeaux lived, and the tendency felt by rich people to avoid making any display of their wealth in time of revolution, combined to put a stop to the manufacture of and to commerce on a large scale.
The peasants, especially those who had obtained possession of their lands, worked hard. Never was labour so energetic as in that autumn of 1791, Michelet tells us; and the harvests of 1791, 1792, and 1793 had been abundant, so that there should have been no lack of bread. But since 1788, all Europe, and France in particular, had been passing through a series of bad years — very cold winters and sunless summers. In reality there had been only one good harvest, that of 1793, and then only in half the departments. In those there had been even a surplus of wheat; but when this surplus, as well as the means of transport, had been requisitioned for the war, there was a dearth in more than half France. A sack of wheat which before that had been valued at only 50 livres in Paris, went up to 60 livres in February 1793 and to 100 and 150 livres in the month of May.
Bread, which formerly cost three sous a pound, now rose to six sous and even to eight sous in the small towns round Paris. In the south it was famine price — ten and twelve sous a pound. At Clermont in the Puy-de-Dôme in June 1793, a pound of bread cost sixteen to eighteen sous. “Our mountain districts are in the utmost misery. The government is distributing the eighth of a setier per individual, and every one is obliged to wait two days for his turn,” we read in the Moniteur of June 15, 1793.
As the Convention did nothing there were disorderly gatherings and riots in eight of the departments, and the Commissioners of the Convention were forced to fix the price of breadstuffs as the people wished. The trade of bladier (speculation in wheat) became at this time one of the most dangerous.
In Paris the question of feeding 600,000 persons had come to be one of life or death; for if the price of bread remained at six sous a pound, as it then was, an insurrection was inevitable and in that case grape-shot alone could prevent the pillaging of the rich men's houses. The Commune, therefore, plunged deeper into debt to the State, and expended from 12,000 to 75,000 livres a day to furnish the bakers with flour, and to keep the price of bread at twelve sous for the four-pound loaf. The Government, for its part, fixed the quantity of grain that each department and each canton should send to Paris. But the roads were in bad repair and all the beasts of burden had been requisitioned for the war. The prices of everything had gone up in proportion. A pound of meat which had formerly cost five or six sous now sold at twenty sous; sugar was ninety sous a pound, and a candle cost seven sous.
Speculators bad been treated with much severity; but that did not help matters. After the expulsion of the Girondins, the Commune had succeeded in getting the Convention to close the Stock Exchange in Paris on June 27, 1793, but speculation still went on, and speculators were seen assembling at the Palais Royal wearing a special badge and marching in processions with girls to mock the misery of the people.
On September 8, 1793, the Paris Commune in desperation set seals on the houses of the bankers and “money-merchants.” Saint-Just and Lebas, sent by the Convention on commission to the Lower Rhine, made an order in the Criminal Court for the house of any one convicted of jobbery to be razed to the ground. But speculation was only driven into other channels.
In Lyons the situation was worse than in Paris, for the municipality being partly Girondist, took no measures to relieve the wants of the people. “The population of Lyons at present Is 130,000 souls at least; there are not provisions enough for three days,” wrote Collot d'Herbois to the Convention on November 7, 1793. “Our situation as regards food is desperate. We are on the brink of famine. . . .” And it was the same in all the large towns.
During this period of scarcity there were touching instances of devotion. We read, for instance, how that the sections of Montmartre and L'Homme Armé decreed a civic fast of six weeks; and Meillé has found in the Bibliothèque Nationale the decree of the Observatoire section dated February 1, 1792, by which all well-to-do citizens in this section were pledged not to use sugar and coffee until their more moderate price would allow the enjoyment of them to their less fortunate brethren. Later on in the Year 11. (February and March 1794), when bread went up to a very high price, all the patriots of Paris decided not to eat any more of it.
But such things could only have a moral effect in the midst of dearth. A general measure became necessary. On April 16, 1793, the administration of the Paris department had addressed a petition to the Convention demanding that the maximum price at which corn could be sold should be fixed and after a serious discussion, in spite of strong opposition, the Convention on May 3, 1793, decided to fix a maximum price for all grains.
The general intention of this decree was to place, as far as possible, the consumer in direct touch with the farmer in the markets, so that they could dispense with the middle-men. For this purpose every merchant or owner of corn and flour was bound to send from his place of residence to the municipality a declaration as to the quantity and nature of the grain in his possession. Corn and flour were no longer to be sold except in public markets established for the purpose, but the consumer might lay in provisions by the month directly from the merchants or landowners of his canton if furnished with a certificate from the municipality. The lowest prices at which the different kinds of grain had stood between January 1 and May 1, 1793, became the maximum price, above which the grain could not be sold. These prices were to be slightly decreased by degrees until September 1. Those who sold or bought at prices above the maximum were to be fined. Those who were convicted of maliciously or designedly spoiling or concealing the grain or flour, which was done even during the scarcity, were to be put to death.
Four months later it was found advisable to equalise the price of wheat all over France, and on September 4, 1793, the Convention fixed for the month of September the price of the best quality wheat at 14 livres the quintal (50 kilos. in weight, 100 by measure). This was the maximum so much cried down, a necessity of the moment of which the royalists and Girondins made a crime to lay upon the Montagnards. The crime was all the more unpardonable because those who sympathised with the people demanded that not only should the price of wheat be fixed, but also that of the baked bread, as well as various objects of prime and secondary necessity. If society had undertaken to protect the life of the citizen, should it not also, they said with justice, protect it against those who made attempts on that life by forming coalitions to deprive it of what was absolutely necessary.
The contest over this subject was, however, very keen — many of the Montagnards as well as the Girondins being absolutely opposed to the idea of fixing the price of food-stuffs, which they said was “impolitic, unpractical and dangerous.” But public opinion prevailed, and on September 29, 1793, the Convention decided to fix a maximum price for things of first and second necessity — meat, cattle for the market, lard, butter, sweet oil, fish, vinegar, brandy, and beer.
This solution was so natural that the question of forbidding the exportation of grain, and of building granaries with this view and of fixing a maximum price for cereals and meat had already been discussed by both politicians and revolutionists since 1789. Certain towns, such as Grenoble, had decided since September 1789, to purchase grain for itself and to deal severely with monopolists. Many pamphlets to this effect were published. When the Convention assembled, the demands for the fixing of a maximum price became pressing, and the council of the department of Paris met the magistrates of the department to discuss this question. The result was a petition which, in the name of all the people in the department of Paris, demanded that the Convention should fix a maximum price for grain. The prices of articles of secondary necessity were fixed for a year. Combustibles, candles, lamp oil, salt, soap, sugar, honey, white paper, metals, hemp, flax, woollen and cotton stuffs, sabots, shoes, tobacco, and the raw materials used in factories were comprised in this category. The maximum price at which it was permitted to sell these wares was the price each had fetched in 1790, which had been fixed by the Assemblies plus one-third, deduction being made of the fiscal and other duties to which they were then subject. This was the decree of September 29, 1793.
But at the same time the Convention legislated against the salaried classes and the poor in general. It decreed that “the maximum or highest figure respectively of salaries, wages, piece work or by the day, shall be fixed up to the September following, by the General Councils of the commune at the same rate as in 1790, with half that sum in addition. . . .”
It is clear that this system could not be limited. Once France had shown that she did not wish to remain under a system of freedom in commerce — and consequently in stock-jobbing and speculation which naturally followed — she could not stop at these timid experiments. She had to go further along the road to the communalism of commerce, despite the resistance, which such ideas must necessarily encounter. The result of this was that, on the 11th Brumaire (November 1, 1593), the Convention discovered through the report of Barère that to fix the price at which goods should be sold by retailers was “to injure the small trades to the profit of the greater ones, and the factory-hand to the profit of the factory-owner.” Then the idea was conceived that to establish the price of merchandise included in the preceding decree, it was necessary to know “the value of each on production.” Adding to this five per cent. profit for the wholesale merchant, and five per cent. for the retailer, so much more for expenses of transport, the fair price was fixed at which each kind of goods should be sold.
A gigantic inquiry was begun, therefore, to establish one of the factors of value, the cost of production. Unfortunately, it was never completed, owing to the triumph of reaction, on the 9th Thermidor, when everything of that kind was abandoned. On the 3rd Nivose, Year III. (December 23, 1794), after a stormy discussion, opened by the Thermidorians, on the 18th Brumaire (November 8), the decrees concerning the maximum were repealed. This resulted in an alarming fall in the value of the paper currency: only nineteen francs were given in exchange for a hundred francs in paper, six months later the exchange was two francs for a hundred, and in November 1725 the value had sunk to fifteen sous. Meanwhile a pair of shoes cost a hundred livres and a drive in a carriage six thousand livres.
It has been already mentioned how Necker, to procure the means of existence for the State, had had recourse at first to two loans, one for thirty, the other for eighty millions. These loans, however, not being successful, he had obtained from the Constituent Assembly an extraordinary grant of a quarter of every person's income payable once. Bankruptcy was threatening the State, and the Assembly, led by Mirabeau, voted the grant demanded by Necker. But this also produced very little. Then, as we have seen, the idea was evolved of putting up the Church lands for sale and issuing assignats (paper-money), which were to be cancelled according as the sales brought in the money, thus forming a source of national revenue. The quantity of paper-money issued was to be limited to the value of the lands each time put up for sale. These assignats bore interest and had an inflated value.
Jobbery and money-lending no doubt tended continually to depreciate the value of the assignats: it could, however, be maintained more or less, so long as the maximum prices of the principal commodities and objects of prime necessity were fixed by the municipalities. But as soon as the maximum was abolished by the Thermidorian reaction the depreciation of the assignats was rapid. The misery caused by this among those who lived from hand to mouth can be imagined.
Reactionary historians are always ready to involve this subject, like so many others, in vagueness and confusion. But the truth is that the great depreciation of the assignats was only felt after the decree of the 3rd Nivose, Year III., which abolished the maximum.
At the same time, the Convention under the Thermidorians began to issue vast quantities of assignats, so that from six thousand four hundred and twenty millions, which were in circulation on the 3rd Brumaire, Year III. (November 3, 1794), the sum had mounted nine months later, that is, by the 25th Messidor, Year III. (July 13, 1795), to twelve milliards.
Furthermore, the princes, and above all, the Count d'Artois, had set up in England, by an ordinance of September 20, 1794, countersigned by Count Joseph de Puisaye and the Chevalier de Tinténiac, “a manufactory of assignats, resembling in all respects those which had been issued, or were to be issued, by the so-called National Convention.” There were soon seventy workmen employed in this manufacture, and the Count de Puisaye wrote to the committee of the Breton insurrection: “Before long you will have a million a day, and afterwards two, and more later.”
Finally, on March 21, 1794, there was a discussion in the English House of Commons, in which the famous Sheridan denounced the manufacture of the false assignats, which Pitt had allowed to be established in England, and Taylor declared that he had seen with his own eyes the false paper-money being made. Considerable quantities of these assignats were offered in all the large towns of Europe in payment of bills of exchange.
If only reaction had confined itself to these infamous secret doings, but it was even still more active in the systematic monopolisation of food-stuffs by means of purchasing the crops in advance, and in speculating in assignats.
In addition, the abolition of the maximum was the signal for an increase in the price of everything, and this in the midst of terrible scarcity. One can but ask how France managed to pass through such a frightful crisis without completely going under. Even the most revolutionary authors ask themselves this.