Modern history



Flushed with success and skill at all manner of play, he goes from Genoa to Venice, where his good fortune continues so, that he was worth twenty thousand pounds sterling.

With this foundation he began to look about him, and consider how to improve this stock in a solid way of trade . . . having made himself entirely master of these things he frames a paper scheme of his own, and resolves with it to make himself happy and great in his own native country.

W. Gray, The Memoirs, Life and Character of the

Great Mr. Law and His Brother at Paris (1721)

WHAT EXACTLY LAW DID AFTER LEAVING LONDON REMAINS mysterious. As if deliberately to separate himself from his past, the trail of documentary evidence he has left of his life during the next two decades is sparsely and confusingly scattered throughout Europe. He appears in France, where predictably the gambling salons of Paris prove a magnet. He is noted in prison in Caen—his papers were apparently not in order. There was also a lengthy stay in Holland and visits to various cities in Italy. Everywhere he went, his life followed a familiar pattern, with gaming and perilous romance recurring themes. But there are also signs that the lure of the gaming salon and boudoir were not alone in absorbing him: John Law quickly rekindled his fascination with economics.

His growing obsession is underlined by the places he visited: Amsterdam, Venice, Genoa, and Turin offered tantalizing cultural and social attractions. All were cities well stocked with rich tourists and residents, where a gamester of Law’s superior ability knew that there would be ample scope to supplement his income. More tellingly, all were key financial centers. Amsterdam, his home for several years, offered idyllic countryside resembling “a large garden, the roads all well paved, shaded on each side with rows of trees and bordered with large canals full of boats”; it had fine civic buildings, immaculate houses, and women “more nicely clean” than their English counterparts. But Law was attracted to it chiefly because the city was the commercial capital of Europe, and its success was due to a bank.

Amid the monetary confusion of the time, the Bank of Amsterdam had achieved the seemingly impossible: it had brought economic stability to the country, boosted trade, and, for a time, made the Netherlands the commercial superpower of the world. Founded in 1609, the bank had simple governing principles. Adulterated coins were the same scourge in mainland Europe as they were in England, and a vast variety—some eight hundred different denominations of gold and silver coins—circulated. Currency could be exchanged in every town and at every fair throughout Europe, but in Amsterdam the bank took deposits in local and foreign coinage, weighed and assessed them for their purity, and in return issued credit notes or bank money—a form of paper money—representing the intrinsic value of the metal content of the coins rather than their nominal face value. The bank money, Law astutely observed, provided hefty benefits: “Besides the convenience of easier and quicker payments . . . the bank save[s] the expense of cashiers, the expense of bags and carriage, losses by bad money, and the money is safer than in the merchants’ houses, for ’tis less liable to fire or robbery.” The bank guaranteed credit notes and in its turn was endorsed by the state. Since the value of the notes was assured, the public preferred them to conventional coins, and they usually changed hands for more than face value.

Amsterdam’s bank was not the first to turn to paper as a substitute form of money. Paper notes were invented, like so many ingenious artifacts, by the ancient Chinese, who are known to have used them in the seventh century. In Europe, nearly a thousand years later, tentative trials had been made in 1656 in Sweden, where a Livonian, Johan Palmstruch, was given a royal charter to found a private bank, provided that half of his profits were paid to the Crown. Sweden was rich in copper but poor in silver and gold, and its currency included massive copper sheets, of equivalent worth to silver coin, but so heavy—as much as fifteen kilograms—that people carried them lashed to their backs or needed a horse and cart to transport them. In 1661 Palmstruch and his Stockholm Banco overcame this inconvenience by printing paper notes that represented the value of the metal currency, the first true circulating European banknotes as we understand them today. The project blossomed initially, but the temptation to overissue notes proved irresistible. Six years later, unable to redeem the notes it had produced, the bank foundered and Palmstruch landed in prison, only narrowly escaping execution.

Three decades later in America, there was a further foray into paper money. In 1690 the Massachusetts Bay Colony was forced to use banknotes to pay its soldiers after the failure of a military incursion into Quebec, which had been expected to yield enough plunder to pay them. In place of gold and silver salaries the men were given paper notes that would be redeemed, they were promised, as soon as taxes were paid by the local community. Predictably the shortage of hard cash continued to beset the colony, and two years later, citing “the present poverty and calamities of this country, and through scarcity of money, the want of an adequate measure of commerce,” the paper was made legal tender. Other colonies, beset by similar cash shortages, soon followed suit.

Of all the unpromising and disparate seeds from which the paper revolution grew, Amsterdam stood out as a shining exemplar of prudence. Loans to private individuals were offered only against deposits of silver and gold and were carefully restricted; there was no mass circulation of notes without metal reserves. The result was that everyone had faith in Amsterdam’s bank. One visitor, Sir William Temple, remarked, “Foreigners lodge here what part of their money they could transport and know no way of securing at home.” Overseas investors—including English, Spanish, and other governments—gladly used it, and their vast deposits were then advanced as loans at modest rates of interest. In this way fleets were financed and trade thrived. In 1609 the bank had 730 accounts; by the end of the century it had 2,700, with over 16 million florins held on deposit. Trust in a bank had secured an entire nation’s fortune.

In 1697, two years after Law’s life of exile began, peace temporarily descended on Europe. The treaty of Ryswick brought to a close the bitter Nine Years War between France and Austria, Holland, England, Spain, Sweden, and Savoy. France became more accessible to foreign tourists, and around this time Law made what was probably his first visit to Paris.

The city must have captivated him. During the past forty years of Louis XIV’s reign, Paris had become “one of the most beautiful and magnificent [cities] in Europe,” according to Dr. Martin Lister, who visited the same year as Law, “in which a traveller might find novelties enough for six months for daily entertainment.” It was a city of stone-paved streets and ornately carved façades replete with hidden treasure. “As the houses are magnificent without, so the finishing within and furniture answer in riches and neatness; as hangings of rich tapestry, raised with gold and silver threads, crimson damask and velvet beds or of gold and silver tissue. Cabinets and bureaus of ivory inlaid with tortoiseshell, and gold and silver plates in a 100 different manners; branches and candlesticks of crystal,” the overawed doctor reported.

For the visiting dandy, city life offered much. By day he might choose to follow the familiar tourist route, visiting the Louvre, or the King’s Library, promenading in the Tuileries, the Luxembourg, or Physic Garden, or hiring a coach to drive to “a great rendezvous of people of fashion,” the Cour de La Reine, a triple-avenued park bordering the Seine. As night fell, there was the opera at the Palais Royal or the Comédie Française or, during the season, the bustling fair of St. Germain, where stalls remained open long into the night.

Once settled, Law gravitated to the court of the erstwhile King James II. Reliant upon the generosity of Louis XIV for his subsistence, James was currently living in impoverished exile in St. Germain-en-Laye, a château outside Paris. The Jacobite court seethed with covert plots to reinstate him, and it is impossible to be certain how genuine Law’s sympathies were with his cause. He may have visited the court merely because he hankered for the company of fellow Scots; or, as he later suggested, to rejoin some of the friends who had helped him to escape from London; or, more questionably, to infiltrate the court in the hope of gathering intelligence of Jacobite schemes. Performing such a service might gain him favor with King William and help secure a pardon—which preoccupied Law throughout his years of exile.

Gaming, “a perpetual diversion here, if not one of the debauches of the town,” claimed his interest, and even more so than in London offered the easiest way to meet high society. As one visitor put it, “It is a great misfortune for a stranger not to be able to play, but yet a greater to love it. Without gaming one can’t enter into that sort of company that usurps the name of Beau Monde, and no other qualification but that and money are requisite to recommend to the first company in France.” Predictably, much of Law’s time was spent in stylish salons mingling with the elite, gaining their confidence with his insinuating charm and impeccable manners before fleecing them at faro and basset, two of the most fashionable and high-rolling games of the day, at which he excelled. The odds in both games are stacked heavily in favor of the banker—a role Law adopted whenever he could, possibly paying his hostess for the privilege. One acquaintance remembered that Law “never carried less than two bags filled with gold coins worth around 100,000 livres” and that the stakes were so high that his hands “were unable to contain the coins he wished to stake” and he had his own tokens minted, each worth eighteen louis d’or.

Travel, and the unfortunate affair with Mrs. Lawrence, had done nothing to blunt Law’s enthusiasm for romance. Perhaps it was after a particularly successful evening at the tables that he was introduced to Madame Katherine Seigneur, née Knowles, an expatriate outsider in the court of St. Germain who had married a Frenchman. Katherine was of noble birth, a descendant of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn and the sister of the Earl of Banbury. Law had probably met her brother, and if not had certainly heard of him while in the King’s Bench prison in London: he, too, had been involved in a fatal duel. There are no surviving original portraits of her, although she sat at least once for her friend, the famous Italian pastelist Rosalba Carriera, but a Dutch engraving, possibly made after one of the portraits, shows an immaculately dressed woman with dainty features, a generous bosom, and a minuscule waist. Judging by descriptions of her she was not, however, an obvious target for Law’s attentions. The Duc de Saint-Simon recalled candidly that she was “rather handsome,” but that her beauty was flawed by a birthmark like a wine stain “covering one eye and the upper part of her cheek.” Katherine had another crucial distinction: among the overpowdered, overrouged, coquettish ladies of fashionable Paris, Saint-Simon noticed, “she was proud, overbearing and very impertinent in her talk and manners, seldom returning any of the polite attentions offered to her.” Although in England overtly intelligent women were not generally esteemed—most men would have tended to agree with Samuel Johnson’s later quip that “a man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner on his table than when his wife talks Greek”—in France it was different. Amid Parisian society, women enjoyed a greater level of independence. “It is observable,” wrote one visitor, “that the French allow their women all imaginable freedoms, and are seldom troubled by jealousy; nay, a Frenchman will almost suffer you to court his wife before his face, and is even angry if you do not admire her person.” Perhaps Law, having learned to respect his mother’s formidable business acumen, had an unusual regard for clever, outspoken females, and this daunting, difficult, striking woman reminded him of his awe-inspiring mother Jean—or, accustomed as he was to easy conquests, he simply found her hauteur challenging. In any event, he pursued Katherine with determination, and she, evidently dissatisfied by her marriage, must have responded. Yet even had she not been married, such a relationship would have caused consternation: Katherine was of noble birth, while Law was a gamester whose family circumstances were shrouded in mystery. Society frowned on such alliances, and most people sympathized with Lord Sandwich, who later remarked that a father would rather see a daughter “with a pedlar’s bag at her back” than marry beneath her. To Law and Katherine, however, far from home and their families, there was little to stand in the way of their mutual attraction. Certainly, Katherine’s husband (about whom nothing is known apart from his name) seems to have offered no impediment—although the most obvious explanation for his apparent inertia is that he was absent when she and Law met. The liaison blossomed.

Meanwhile, Law’s mastery of dice and cards had unfortunate but unsurprising repercussions. No one wants to stake money against someone who hardly ever loses, and, as it had in London, Law’s knack for winning brought him enemies along with gains. Whispers of his “sharpness” at cards, his dubious past, and his possible involvement in espionage began to circulate and brought him to the attention of the authorities. Clearly the time had come for Law to move on; only Katherine held him back.

In the sophisticated world of which both Law and Katherine were habitués, discreet infidelities, however ill-advised, could be quickly forgotten—but there was a chasm between a clandestine affair and an elopement. Both must have known that the latter would cost Katherine her reputation and that there would be no turning back. It is, therefore, a mark of the usually guarded Law’s feelings that he asked Katherine to leave Paris with him. The decision cannot have been easy, but perhaps feeling that travel offered the only way for such an unconventional partnership to evade the usual social restrictions, she agreed, in Gray’s words, “to pack up her awls, leave her husband, and run away with him to Italy.” From then on Katherine Seigneur was known as Mrs. John Law even though marriage, for the time being at least, was impossible. As no doubt they had feared, the story of their flight made headlines in the Paris press and Horace Walpole later wrote of “an account in some French literary gazette, I forget which, of his [Law] having carried off the wife of another man.”

Their destination was Italy, the birthplace of European banking. They went first to Genoa, where, according to Gray, Law was able to find “cullies [suckers] enough to pick up a great deal of Money from,” and later to Rome, Florence, Turin, and Venice. In each city he visited he played the tables and worked at his research into finance. The great public banking institutions of Italy had been born in the Middle Ages from the need to fund crusades, commerce, and war. By the late sixteenth century Venice’s state banks—the Banco di Rialto and the Banco del Giro—operated much like the bank in Amsterdam, which had followed the Venetian lead, accepting deposits in adulterated coin and issuing notes in “bank money” with the guarantee of the state. Law also learned much about foreign-exchange dealing in Venice. According to Gray, “he constantly went to the Rialto at change-time [when the exchange was open], no merchant upon commission was punctualler, he observed the course of exchange all the world over, the manner of discounting bills at the bank, the vast usefulness of paper credit, how gladly people parted with their money for paper, and how the profits accrued to the proprietors from this paper.”

Along with its bank, Venice had much to attract John Law and his beautiful companion. They arrived in time for the famous carnival, which began on Twelfth Night, when some thirty thousand foreigners invaded the city to enjoy a bacchanalian extravaganza of acrobatics, music, animal fights, fireworks, and dancing in the streets. According to one spectator, “Women, men and persons of all conditions disguise themselves in antique dresses, with extravagant music and a thousand gambols, traversing the streets from house to house, all places being then accessible and free to enter.”

Venice was famed for sex and gambling. The city dubbed “the brothel of Europe” had gambling houses, or ridotti, “where none but noblemen keep the bank, and fools lose their money.” One rueful English visitor described a typical soirée: “They dismiss the gamesters when they please, and always come off winners. There are usually ten or twelve chambers on a floor with gaming-tables in them, and vast crowds of people; a profound silence is observed, and none are admitted without masks. Here you meet ladies of pleasure, and married women who under the protection of a mask enjoy all the diversions of the carnival.” With Katherine at his side, Law presumably ignored sexual distractions and capitalized on the plentiful opportunities for making money instead.

By the end of his tour of Italy, his financial expertise had opened numerous doors: the Duc de Vendôme and the Duke of Savoy were among his royal friends. After ten years of economic research, he had accumulated formidable financial knowledge as well as £20,000 from gambling, moneylending, and foreign-exchange trading. Yet for all this he was dissatisfied. Perhaps ambition made moneymaking for personal gain seem no longer sufficiently satisfying. Perhaps the glamour of travel had dimmed and Katherine, tired with the discomforts of their itinerant life, was pressuring him to settle. Certainly by now his observation of banking systems in Amsterdam and Italy, coupled with what he had seen of London’s financial innovations, had fired within him a grand vision: he wanted to use his understanding and ingenuity for the benefit of the populace, to play a key part in Europe’s financial evolution.

Law’s interest in economy was leading him, like many others of his age, to reflect on the role of the state, or of large-scale enterprise, in national prosperity. He saw money as a scientist might an array of laboratory equipment and chemicals, as substance for experiment and a subject for theory. In this sense, he was reflecting the new, enlightened age. Just as the mysteries of mathematics and nature had been explained by the researches of scientists like Newton, Huygens, and Boyle, Law’s confident aim was now to use his knowledge to take on the challenge of experimenting with a nation’s fortune.

Scotland, the land of his birth, he decided, was where his ideas would be unveiled. In about 1704, according to Gray, he made the long journey home, leaving Venice “with his Madam and family” to journey “through Germany down to Holland and there embark for Scotland.” Throughout the voyage, worries about his past constantly intruded. In England he was still a fugitive with a death sentence hanging over him, but Scotland, although ruled by the same monarch, had a separate government and he could not be arrested there for a crime committed in London. Should union between Scotland and England take place, however—and there were many in favor of such a change—his safety would no longer be assured.

Law was tired of being on the run. After nearly ten years oftraveling he saw that unless he wanted to spend the rest of his life as a fugitive, a royal pardon was essential. The Wilson family’s animosity might be defused if he compensated them generously for their loss—and he now had the money to do so. Royal assent, the other criterion for a pardon, depended on the new monarch, Queen Anne, who had succeeded to the throne after William’s death. A flicker of hope grew that if he could convince her of the benefit his ideas could bring to her country, she might spare him the gallows and give him the longed-for reprieve.

On arrival in Edinburgh, Law was reunited with his mother, whom he had not seen since he left the city as a young man. What did the redoubtable Jean make of the equally determined Katherine? Did her son hide from her the true nature of the liaison? Whatever their feelings, it seems that within this settled domestic background, Law was able to work with new purpose.

He decided to tender his knowledge to the queen in the traditional way, by writing a proposal. His first work, only recently identified by scholars, was entitled “Essay on a Land Bank.” In it he proposed a bank issuing paper money based on the value of land. This was a more stable basis for credit than silver, he contended, since history had shown that precious metals could fluctuate in value according to their scarcity, whereas land’s value was less volatile. The idea was not entirely original: since the mid-seventeenth century numerous writers had put forward similar schemes—even Defoe felt “land is the best bottom for banks.” The same idea still flourishes today in the form of savings-and-loan associations.

Queen Anne was not impressed. Law’s arguments might be ingenious and succinctly expressed, but he could not erase his past. As a convicted felon and a notorious gambler, he was a far-from-obvious candidate to trust with the nation’s purse. After cursory consideration, the idea was therefore quickly rejected. The list of petitions and memorials to the queen in August 1704 recorded that Law, presently residing in Scotland, “by the intercession of friends” had managed to secure the Wilson family’s agreement to annul the appeal. It continues circumspectly, “yet your petitioner is debarred from serving your majesty (as he is most desirous) in the just war wherein your majesty is now engaged,” requesting royal pardon, “not only for the death of the said John [sic: it should be Edward] Wilson, but also for his breach of the said prison that he may be able to serve the queen for the rest of his life.” The application is marked with the single word “rejected.” In the eyes of the queen and her government, Law’s financial genius would never be acknowledged.

Faced with this setback, Law did not waver in his determination. Certain that the scheme’s soundness was not in question, he decided to adapt it for Scotland. Here he was confident that his influential friends, including the Duke of Argyll, who was the queen’s commissioner in Scotland, would ensure a fair hearing.

Scotland desperately needed someone to cure her economic ills. At the turn of the eighteenth century the country languished in an economic nadir, with currency in short supply, trade in the doldrums, unemployment and poverty widespread. The situation was exacerbated by a financial fiasco called the Darien scheme. The brainchild of William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England, the idea had been to found a colony in Panama, which would provide a base from which cargoes would be carried across the isthmus from the Pacific to the Atlantic and back, avoiding the long, treacherous route around Cape Horn. Touting the idea as a fail-safe investment that would yield fabulous rewards and make Scotland the richest country on earth, he raised £400,000—nearly half the capital of Scotland—from optimistic private investors all eager to participate. In 1698, after ejecting scores of desperate stowaways, five ships set sail from Leith with 2,000 passengers aboard, including Paterson, his wife, and his son. Three months later they dropped anchor at the settlement of New Caledonia.

The expedition was a disaster. Malaria, dysentery, and other diseases were rife; the Spanish besieged the settlement; the English refused support because they were worried about competition with the East India Company, and, as a consequence, trade was blighted. Two years later, when the project was finally abandoned, the lives of 1,700 colonists, among them Paterson’s wife and son, had been lost, numerous investors had been ruined, and the Scottish economy was in such crisis that even the survival of the Bank of Scotland, set up a year after the Bank of England, was threatened.

John Law was convinced he could rectify the situation. Within a year he had completed a 120-page pamphlet entitled Money and Trade Considered with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money. It was published anonymously in 1705 by Andrew Anderson of Edinburgh, a company owned at the time by Law’s aunt. A poster advertising the main points of Law’s argument was prominently displayed in local meeting places. His name did not appear on the proposal, perhaps to avoid marring its chances of success with his tarnished reputation; but in circles of influence, Law’s authorship was soon common knowledge.

Economic historians still marvel at the extraordinary clarity of expression—that is, they say, remarkable for its time. Law begins by explaining the meaning of value, which he says is related to rarity rather than use. “Water is of great use, yet of little value, because the quantity of water is much greater than the demand for it. Diamonds are of little use, yet of great value, because the demand for diamonds is much greater than the quantity of them.” He then looks at the meaning of money and argues that “money is not the value for which goods are exchanged, but the value by which they are exchanged: the use of money is to buy goods, and silver while money is of no other use.” This vision of money as a functional medium—with no intrinsic value but backed by something of stable value, the gambler’s chips that can be cashed in at the end of the evening—leads him to his central suggestion, for a bank with the power to issue notes using land as security.

To his friends the argument was convincing, and the Duke of Argyll brought it to the attention of the Scottish Parliament. At the next sitting, on June 28, 1705, the main business under consideration was the question of union between Scotland and England: in view of Scotland’s economic ills, worsened by the Darien scheme, the union was now widely seen as advantageous. Law’s scheme was also to be discussed, along with another proposal by the eminent Dr. Chamberlen, who was already well known in Scotland and England for his financial schemes.

Despite Law’s hopes, the past weighed heavily against him, and his proposal sparked an explosive response. William Greg, an agent working for the English government who watched proceedings, was highly dismissive of Law, “a gentleman who of all men living once was thought to have the worst turned head that way,” and wrote off the pamphlet as the “homespun” proposal of a “rake.” Two days later, when Parliament again convened to discuss the two schemes, Law became ensnared in the complexities of Scottish politics.

One of the parliamentary factions, the Squadrone Volante, opted to support him, but he was fiercely opposed by the national party, headed by Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun. George Baillie of Jerviswood, a member of the Squadrone, proposed Law’s scheme, “in his opinion, a more rational and practicable scheme than that of Dr. Chamberlen.” Few agreed. Fletcher, an irascible man, scornfully retorted that he thought it “a contrivance to enslave the nation” and demanded that the two men be brought before Parliament to reason and debate the matter openly.

Rushing to Law’s defense, the Earl of Roxburghe, also of the Squadrone, declared he did not see why Law, who had spent “some considerable time purely to serve his country,” should be forced to appear against his will; he should be treated “with good manners if not encouragement.” According to one witness, Fletcher was so furious at what he took to be an accusation of ill manners that had he been near Roxburghe “they would have gone together by the ears.”

Argyll, who was presiding over the meeting, ordered that Fletcher and Roxburghe be confined in their chambers to avoid the row continuing after the debate. Roxburghe, “mannerly and respectful,” allowed himself to be arrested. Fletcher, who famously boasted “that he never made his court to any king or commissioner,” proved more elusive. Surreptitiously leaving the house, he made his way to a nearby tavern and sent a challenge to Roxburghe to meet him at Leith, a popular spot for duels.

With Baillie as his second, Roxburghe talked himself out of confinement, responded to Fletcher’s challenge, and rushed to Leith at six in the evening. Before the two men could draw swords, Baillie intervened. The fight would not be fair, he said. His lordship had “a great weakness in his right leg so that he could hardly stand, ’twas not to be expected that this quarrel could be decided by the sword.” Fletcher had foreseen such an objection, produced a pair of pistols, and offered them to Roxburghe to take his choice. Baillie again objected that his lordship’s weakness would “equally disable him from firing on foot.” Meanwhile, in the distance a party of mounted constabulary was spotted—both men were still supposed to be under arrest. The seconds immediately fired their pistols in the air and everyone returned to Edinburgh.

The ludicrous quarrel did nothing to help Law. His scheme, though interesting enough for William Greg secretly to dispatch a copy south to his superiors (London was already watching the progress of John Law), was damningly rejected for being “too chimerical to be put in practice.” And while the wranglings dragged on, union drew ever closer. Law, reluctant to leave his homeland and still optimistic of securing a royal pardon, again lodged an appeal for clemency. His petition reiterated his intention to work for “the ease and honour of the government and the good and prosperity of his country.” Again he was turned down.

Exile was now the only way to avoid imprisonment. As Katherine made preparations to depart, Law passed his final days on Scottish soil at the gaming tables. Among his recorded successes was an estate worth £1,200 (US$1,800) won from Sir Andrew Ramsay, “one of the finest Gentlemen of his time,” who after his encounter with Law had only £100 (US$160) left.

The earliest known likeness of John Law, a miniature in the Earl of Derby’s collection, dates from around this time. The image shows a dreamy young man in a short wig with Madonna-like oval face, heavy-lidded eyes, long hawkish broken nose, and generous mouth. His expression of poker-faced calm calls to mind his contemporary du Hautchamp’s description of him playing cards, “a serene temper without transport [that] made him master of himself when fortune ran against or for him, so he generally came a gainer, seldom a considerable loser.” Perhaps Law gave the miniature to his mother on his departure. He was never to see her again; she died two years later. For the time being, however, such sorrow was far from his thoughts. Finding some way of putting his schemes into action was now his overriding aim; his resolve had never been greater.

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