The American Historical Review/Volume 23/Maximum Prices in France in 1793 and 1794

Maximum Prices in France in 1793 and 1794

The measures adopted by the German imperial government for the control of food prices and the fair distribution of supplies, together with the recent legislation on the same subject in the United States, give a fresh interest to similar experiments in France, when that country was confronted by a world of enemies in 1793 and 1794. An adequate examination of certain aspects of the French experience with maximum prices has now been made possible by the work of scholars under the direction of the Commission de Recherche et de Publication des Documents relatifs à la Vie Économique de la Révolution. So extensive is the documentary material on the subject in the local archives of France, communal as well as departmental, that the individual student, unaided by the results of such co-operative labors, could hardly hope to obtain a comprehensive view of the problem. This is especially true of the American student, whose visits to French archives can only be occasional. The purpose of the present note is to call attention to some of the new material and to indicate a few of the interesting questions suggested by its study.

The volumes published by the Commission, so far as they are concerned with the question of food and other necessaries of life, contain more material upon the supply of wheat and its distribution than upon what was called the Maximum général, established by the law of September 29, 1793, and modified by subsequent legislation. This is in consequence of the wise policy of the Commission in organizing carefully the study of one field before undertaking work upon another. In order that the researches of the collaborating scholars may be most successful, and their publications edited on a plan reasonably uniform, the Commission usually issues a pamphlet of instructions or a manual containing the important laws, regulations, and administrative circulars bearing on the subject. Such was M. Pierre Caron's Le Commerce des Céréales, published in 1907, which was the introduction to the series on Les Subsistances.[1] In 1913 M. Caron was authorized to prepare a similar volume on the Maximum général, but its publication has apparently been delayed by the war. As a consequence the series which it was intended to introduce is also delayed.

This does not mean that no documents for the study of pricemaking in general have been made available by the work of the Commission. The volumes on the grain supply incidentally contain much on the broader subject. For example, the records of the Committee of Subsistence of Toulouse show that while it was mainly busied with questions of wheat and bread it was anxious also to secure supplies of meat, oil, soap, and candles. The volumes of M. Mourlot, embodying documents from the records of the municipalities of the district of Alençon, deal with all economic problems, including the general maximum.[2] The characteristic difficulties in the enforcement of the maximum laws in Paris and in its neighborhood are made vividly apparent in the reports of the "Observers" Grivel and Siret, which M. Caron has printed at length in the Commission's Bulletin of 1907.[3]

The most satisfactory studies of price-making in France deal with local situations: for example, that of M. Babeau, in his history of Troyes during the Revolution. The Commission's Bulletin of 1907 contains an enlightening account by M. Lefebvre of the way the maximum worked in the district of Bergues. The same writer has also described the experience of a particular commune of that district.[4] The more comprehensive accounts are open to the charge of fragmentariness or prejudice. Even that of M. Levasseur, in the revised edition of his Histoire des Classes Ouvrières en France, is meagre and not free from confusion. He makes no clear statement of the modifications introduced by the law of the 11th Brumaire, nor does he give an adequate notion of the enormous difficulties which the government had to overcome before it issued its schedules of prices. The principal weakness in his treatment, however, is its failure to consider the influence of a war which arrayed against France nearly every European power. He apparently regarded the argument for complete economic freedom as unaffected by such a circumstance. Taine's long chapter on the subject equally disregards this fact. His main interest appears to have been to illustrate Jacobin violence and administrative incapacity. The most instructive of the older treatments is in Biollay's Les Prix en 1790, although his description of the price legislation of 1793 is only incidental.

The French experiment with maximum prices was confessedly a failure; at least such was the declared opinion of the Convention in December, 1794, when the maximum laws, were repealed. The question is, Was the failure real?—and, if so, What was the reason? A recent writer on the food dictatorship in Germany alleges the greed of the farmer as the cause of the supposed failure of the grain maximum in Revolutionary France. This statement simply re-echoes the invectives hurled at the farmer from 1792 on by those members of the Convention or of town councils who represented the point of view of the urban proletariat, and who could not or would not understand the position of the farmer. Mobs of townsmen had ruined the grain-trade and had created an artificial famine even before the general war broke out in February, 1793. Tormented by fear of scarcity, the townsmen not only prevented grain from being sent out of their own communities to other markets, but also stopped wagons which were passing by, and either pillaged the loads or compelled the grain to be sold, often below cost. They looked upon the grain-merchants as in a conspiracy to corner the market or to export grain, and they began to regard the farmer as a conspirator too, and to abuse him when he appeared in the local market. Their anger was aroused if he refused to take the rapidly depreciating paper for his grain. As the assignats had lost nearly half their face-value by the summer of 1792, it is not surprising that the farmer preferred coin, and, if he could not get this, demanded a higher price. The first maximum law, adopted May 4, 1793, provided that in each department the price should be the average of the local market prices from January to May. The farmer could not now make a distinction between payment in assignats and payment in coin, for that had just been made a penal oflfense. In consequence he was inclined to keep his grain, waiting for the Convention to repeal the maximum law, or for a turn in the political wheel of fortune which should bring coin again into circulation. The evidence of the documents is that wherever the law was enforced the markets were deserted, if they had not been deserted before. Several departments, fearing the consequences to themselves of the law, did not enforce it at all or fixed the price later than their neighbors, in the hope of attracting grain to their own markets. By the close of August it was recognized that this first experiment was a failure, and on September 11 the plan was tried of fixing a uniform price for the whole country and making an allowance for the costs of transportation. This law offered still less inducement to the farmer, for in those departments where grain was scarce he was to receive a price much lower even than the January price. If he took his grain to market, he commonly found no merchants to buy it, the allowance for carriage being below the rates charged by carters and boatmen. Moreover, why should a merchant buy at the maximum in one place and transport it to another when he was obliged to sell at the same price? The reason for the partial failure of the grain maximum is to be found elsewhere than in the greed of the farmers. Many members of the Convention rightly believed that all such efforts were doomed to failure unless the inflation of paper money was stopped.

It is by no means clear that the grain maximum was a complete failure, except from the point of view of the orthodox economy. France was in a condition for which the Convention was not wholly responsible. The distrust which each department, often each district or town, felt toward its neighbors when the question of food was raised, had brought about an economic federalism far more dangerous than the mild schemes of decentralization entertained by the Girondins. The Constituent Assembly had embarked on the disastrous policy of relying on paper money rather than upon taxes to pay the expenses of the Revolution. By the spring and summer of 1793 the ills bred by these two diseases had become inveterate. They were aggravated by defeats on the frontier, by rumors of treason, and by the fact of civil war. Grain must be obtained for the armies and for the civil population as well. It was folly to expect the farmer to save the situation, voluntarily, at his own cost, for until the general maximum was introduced in the fall he had to pay high prices for everything he bought and high wages to his employees. But both the law of May and the law of September did contain a provision which could be utilized to keep the country from starvation. This was the right of the authorities to compel farmers to bring grain to market, where, of course, it could be purchased at the maximum price. Whether the proceeding was just is not now under discussion. The local records show that commandeering, or the requisition, as it was then called, was the method by which France was fed, so far as grain was concerned, in the last half of 1793 and during the year 1794. At best the system of force could be only temporary. Not even Terror could in the long run keep the farmers at work. But by the time it was necessary to abandon the plan of a maximum the country had been saved both from its foreign foes and from the factions which were still more dangerous. There is some truth in the remark made in his memoirs by another Levasseur, deputy from the Sarthe, that "our critics must prove that the maximum has not lessened the wretchedness of the masses, and so stimulated their enthusiasm, before blaming us for establishing it."

Perhaps the same might be said for the general maximum, and doubtless Levasseur's remark was meant to include this, but the case would be difficult to make out. In the first place the law had been in existence only a month when the basis of prices was fundamentally changed. The principle of the law of September 29 was that prices should be the local prices of 1790 with one-third added. The Convention soon discovered that neither wholesaler nor retailer could continue business under this system. The wholesaler was apparently better off than the retailer, because he could charge the maximum to the retailer, who then could make no profit at all. But the wholesaler was hit almost equally hard, if he tried to restock, because the producer charged the maximum and the law made no allowance for the great increase in transportation charges. On the 11th Brumaire (November 1), accordingly, the Convention decided that prices should be based upon those of 1790 at the place of production, with the addition of a third, plus a rate per league for carriage, and five per cent, for the wholesaler, and ten per cent, for the retailer. A few days before a new Commission of Supplies (Subsistances et Approvisionnements) had been created, and to this was assigned the task of preparing the schedules of prices at the place of production in 1790. The schedules were to be printed and sent to the district authorities, whose duty it was to add the allowances for transportation and for profits. The Commission seems to have labored with the greatest diligence, but its task was not completed until late in February. After the Convention had approved the work the printing of the schedules began. As there were twenty, amounting in all to 1278 printed pages, weeks were required. They had to be printed again in the districts, with the legal allowances added, in order that citizens as well as merchants might have copies. In not a few districts the local printers did not have type enough to push forward the work rapidly. The consequence was that the new rates were promulgated locally one after another all through the spring and summer. As all maximum laws were abrogated in December, the new price system had a short career. One question upon which available documents do not throw sufficient light is whether the law of the 11th Brumaire operated to nullify the law of September 29. M. Lefebvre finds that it did in the commune of Bourbourg, but he does not express so definite an opinion for the district of Bergues as a whole. The documents do offer an abundance of evidence to show that in many places the earlier maximum was disregarded for other reasons, if not because of the change in the scheme.

One of the most curious results of the maximum legislation was the growth of a contraband trade, which reached enormous proportions. This was especially true for butter, eggs, and meat, which were peddled in small quantities by revendeurs or higglers. To control the prices charged by such persons, chiefly women, who made their way into alleys, to the doors of apartments, and to the service entrances of the rich, was practically impossible. The growth of this contraband trade contributed to the unpopularity of a law which was ruinous only to honest butchers and grocers.

In the study of the maximum legislation the close connection between the influence of the Paris radicals and the two laws of September 11 and of September 29 has not been sufficiently emphasized. When late in August it became clear that the first grain maximum was a failure, the tide of sentiment in the Convention seemed to be running against the policy of a maximum. Paris then intervened with demands and menaces. On September 4 the municipal council voted to proceed to the Convention in a body and demand the immediate creation of a "revolutionary army, which should march wherever necessary to thwart the manoeuvres of egoists and forestallers [i. e., grain merchants and farmers], and bring them to justice". Chaumette, speaking for the commune the next day, urged that a guillotine accompany the army, in order that at a blow the lives of intriguers, as well as their plots, should be cut off. This, he said, would force "avarice and cupidity to disgorge the riches of the earth". The agitation to strengthen the food laws and to carry them out rigorously enabled Billaud-Varennes and Collot d'Herbois to force their way into the Committee of Public Safety. The existing members of the committee, if we may judge by the later speeches of Saint Just and Barère, took a critical attitude toward the maximum laws. In the spring of 1794 Barère, speaking in behalf of the committee for the adoption of the new schedules of prices, declared frankly that the original maximum laws were a feature of the "profound system of the counter-revolutionary cabinet of London and Paris". Not many days afterward the committee ordered the arrest of Chaumette, the spokesman of the Paris radicals in the food agitation of September.

These are only a few of the interesting problems the study of which is facilitated by the publications of the Commission. It is to be hoped that the burdens which the war has laid upon France will not fatally hamper the work undertaken by the Commission and its co-operating scholars.

  1. The most important volumes of this series are Les Procès-Verbaux des Comités d'Agriculture et de Commerce de la Constituante, de la Législative, et de la Convention (ed. F. Gerbaux and Ch. Schmidt, 4 vols.); Ch. Lorain, Les Subsistances en Céréales dans le District de Chaumont (Haute-Marne), 2 vols.; J. Adler, Le Comité des Subsistances de Toulouse; G. Lefebvre, Documents relatifs à l'Histoire des Subsistances dans le District de Bergues (Nord), vol. I. Of the last work a second volume is to appear, unless its completion has been prevented by the devastation of that part of France.
  2. Recueil des Documents d'Ordre Économique contenus dans les Registres de Délibérations des Municipalités du District d'Alençon (Orne), 3 vols.
  3. Other collections, like that of M. Aulard for the Committee of Public Safety, contain many documents bearing on the subject. An original copy of the Tableau du Maximum Général, in two volumes, issued by the Commission des Subsistances et Approvisionnements in 1794, is to be found in the Ford Collection of the New York Public Library.
  4. "La Société Populaire de Bourbourg", in Revue du Nord, IV. 273–323.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1946, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.