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'Midas, transmuting all, into paper': the Bank of England and the Banque de France during the Napoleonic Wars

  • Jagjit S.Chadha


  • Elisa Newby


This paper assesses Revolutionary and Napoleonic wartime economic policy. Suspension of gold convertibility in 1797 allowed the Bank of England to nurture British monetary orthodoxy. The Order of the Privy Council suspended gold payments on Bank of England notes and afforded simultaneous protection to the government and the Bank in pursuit of the conflicting goals of price stability and war finance. The government, the Bank of England and the commercial banks formed a loose alliance drawing on due political and legal processes and also paid close attention to public opinion. We suggest that the ongoing solvency of the Bank of England was facilitated by suspension and allowed the Bank to continue to make substantial profits throughout the Wars. It became acceptable for merchants to continue to trade with non-convertible Bank of England notes and for the government to finance the war effort, even with significant recourse to unfunded debt. These aspects combined to create a suspension of convertibility that did not undermine the currency. By contrast, the Assignats debacle had cost the French monetary system its reputation in the last decade of the 18th century and so Napoleonic finance had to evolve within a more rigid and limiting framework.

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Paper provided by School of Economics, University of Kent in its series Studies in Economics with number 1315.

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Date of creation: Sep 2013
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:ukc:ukcedp:1315
Contact details of provider: Postal: School of Economics, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NP
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  1. Ricardo, David, 1810. "The High Price of Bullion, a Proof of the Depreciation of Bank Notes," History of Economic Thought Books, McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought, number ricardo1810.
  2. Bordo Michael D. & Kydland Finn E., 1995. "The Gold Standard As a Rule: An Essay in Exploration," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 32(4), pages 423-464, October.
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  4. Perlman, Morris, 1986. "The Bullionist Controversy Revisited," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 94(4), pages 745-62, August.
  5. Bordo, Michael D & Redish, Angela, 1993. "Maximizing Seignorage Revenue during Temporary Suspensions of Convertibility: A Note," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 45(1), pages 157-68, January.
  6. Herschel I. Grossman & John B. Van Huyck, 1985. "Sovereign Debt as a Contingent Claim: Excusable Default, Repudiation, and Reputation," NBER Working Papers 1673, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Michael D. Bordo & Anna J. Schwartz, 1994. "The Specie Standard as a Contingent Rule: Some Evidence for Core and Peripheral Countries, 1880-1990," NBER Working Papers 4860, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Flandreau, Marc, 2007. "Pillars of Globalization: A history of monetary policy targets, 1797-1997," CEPR Discussion Papers 6252, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  9. Bordo, Michael D. & White, Eugene N., 1991. "A Tale of Two Currencies: British and French Finance During the Napoleonic Wars," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 51(02), pages 303-316, June.
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