Title: John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century
Publisher: Maclehose Press
Author: James Buchan
Pp: 534 including index, acknowledgements and author biography
Publication date: September 6 2018
I have read tantalising brief accounts of John Law in a series of books outlining financial history. He could be charitably described as an adventurer (as here), or a buccaneer, even a pioneer in his field for having, according to this book, invented fiat money in France in the 18th century.
In modern parlance amongst the humble Scots who are his counterparts in the 21st, he would be labelled a chancer of the first order, a fly man of the top rank. Even in this sympathetic portrayal the author concedes from the start that over the centuries, Law has been portrayed as a crook, a rake and a madman, but today, observes Buchan, many of his ideas are now the plainest orthodoxy.
He always seemed to me to deserve a book of his own, and here it is. I look forward enormously to reading it from cover to cover.
In the meantime, I will be honest and say that so far I have only dipped into it here and there for the purposes of this review. The opening paragraph is something I wish I had written myself, and there is no higher praise that a writer can give.
“The marquis d'Effiat, Charleval and Toucy, comte de Tancarville and Valençay, chamberlain and hereditary constable of Normandy, baron de la Riviere, seigneur de Gerponville, Saint-SUplix, Roissy, Orcher and Guermantes and proprietor of Arkansas in the New World, also deFerry, Dujardin, Annington, Wilmot, Hamilton, Gardiner, Hamden and in the Jacobite cipher 888.75.1804, was born in the year 1671 in the Parliament Close of Edinburgh, capital of the Kingdom of Scotland (Edinburgh was described in a debate in Parliament as the most unwholesome and unpleasant town in Scotland).
Dear readers, meet John Law, son of goldsmith William Law and Jean Campbell, who had 12 children in all, of whom four died in childhood. If that is not a tough start to life, what is?
Fast forward to 1712 and John Law is in the throes of establishing a bank with the blessing of the French authorities. Because the French had small experience of banking, journalists were baffled and hostile, James Buchan observes. Plus ça change...
As the blurb on the inside front cover says, at the summit of his reputation in 1720, a period lasting just over one hundred days, Law was the most powerful man in France after the Regent, the Duke of Orléans. He was also the richest private citizen in Europe.
Oh, I almost forgot to say, the book looks great. Just looking at the front cover feels like stepping into a time machine.