Ainsworth, like Dickens and Trollope, wrote a long novel about a disreputable financier, though his John Law, unlike Merdle in Little Dorrit and Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, was a real person, and he lived in the eighteenth, rather than the nineteenth, century. Law is probably best thought of as closer to George Hudson, the railway magnate, who may have led to a lot of people losing money but who was not an actual swindler. His contemporaries, like Law’s wanted to celebrate his — and their — financial success by commissioning a public statue. What is so odd about The Reader’s review of the novel is that it devotes almost all its considerable length to the historical John Law and has little to say about any literary matters, such as characterization, setting, description, or imagery.
In transcribing the following material from The Reader, an interesting, unfortunately short-lived intellectual magazine of the 1860s, I have used the Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. The full-text version is generally accurate, and the most common OCR error here takes the form of turning the letter “e” as “o.” I corrected the scanning errors, and for ease of reading I have added a few paragraph breaks. If you come upon any errors I have missed, please do not hesitate to let the editors of this site know. — George P. Landow
n the whole history of European finance, varied as that history is, there is no one character that stands out so marvellously prominent as John Law; and Mr. Harrison Ainsworth has judged wisely in fixing on his story as the groundwork of anothor novel. The only thing in modern times comparable to the Mississippi scheme for speculative sordidness, avarice, and national delusion is the South Sea bubble; but the, speculator Blunt, the originator of this scheme, was a very ordinary and vulgar projector compared with the accomplished Law. Though the South Sea Company started with a large capital, and competed with the Bank of England in buying up annuities to the amount of £800,000, and was successful at the sum of seven millions and a half, yet, in the history of that scheme, which caused the dismissal of a Chancellor of the Exchequer, the resignation of a Lord Treasurer, the, suicide of a Postmaster-General, the expulsion of several members of Parliament, and the clearing of a thousand on every nominal hundred which Sir Robert Walpole had subscribed for it, there is nothing half so dramatic, picturesque, or spirit-stirring as the history and adventures of the remarkable man whose name is the title of the work at present before us. Mr. Ainsworth has had a very long experience in works of fiction; but never has he fallen on a more felicitous subject than on that which has recently engaged his practised pen. By all the great masters in the art of novel-writing — by Fielding, by Smollett, by Scott, and others not necessary to name here — actual history has boen employed in novels, tales, romances, and even epics; but it is indispensable to the success and verisimilitude of undertakings of this nature that historic truth and probability should be always kept in view. This course has been conscientiously followed by Mr. Ainsworth. An analysis of the present work becomes a mere rifaciamento of Law's biography, so truth-like is it. We cannot, therefore, present a better idea of the scheme and scope of the volumes under review than by glancing at the principal events of Law's career.
John Law was born at Edinburgh in 1671. His father, like William Ward (the ancestor of Earl Dudley and Ward), who lived in the reign of Charles I., was a jeweller and banker at Edinburgh. He died in 1685, three years before our great revolution, when his son John was only fourteen years old. Ward the father left his children a handsome fortune, partly acquired by his own industry and partly derived from his wife, an heiress possessed of the estate of Lauriston, and related, it is said, to the House of Argyle. His son John, the hero of Mr. Ainsworth's story, received the advantage of a careful education. He was remarkable for precocious intelligence and great aptitude in arithmetic, algebra, and the mathematics. In 1691, when in his twentieth year, he is described as an accomplished gentleman — not merely by reason of his mental culture and endowments, but for the graces of his person and the elegance and polish of his manners. He was of commanding stature, being above six feet in height; and, though he was said in early life to speak broad Scotch, yet, like his countryman Wedderburne, afterwards Lord Chancellor Loughborough, he soon lost his provincial accent. He talked much and well, though somewhat too emphatically; but, by attrition with good society, these North-British angularities were soon rubbed off. Law had sufficient sense and shrewdness to leave "that land of metaphysics and medicine, that garret of the earth, that knuckle-end of the world, that land of Calvin, oat-cakes, sulphur, and flinty lulls" which Sidney Smith calls Scotland. Previously to abandoning his native country he had been engaged to arrange the revenue accounts of Scotland — a circumstance showing his proficiency in vulgar arithmetic. His first arrival in the British metropolis must have been about 1693; and he remained in London till 1697. The ingenious and lively M. Thiers, who sometimes draws on his imagination for facts, says that John Law employed this time in gambling, in philandering with women, and in studying the secrets of commerce and credit; but Eugene Daire, the laborious and well-informed author of fifteen volumes of the lives of the Economists, and who has given among them an interesting account of the life, labours, and financial plans of Law, inclines to think that deep play engrossed much more of the time of the "Projector" than the fair sex. There is no doubt, according to the "Chronique Scandaleuse," that Law had many amorous intrigues — that he mixed much in the gay world — was "Hail, fellow, well met" with all the wild, dissolute, and roystering swash-bucklers and gallants of his time. It is certain that, between 1691 and 1695, he killed in duel a Mr. Wilson, with whose wife he is said to have had an intrigue. In consequence of this affair he left England, escaping to Holland. In the land of dikes, dams, and debentures he mingled pleasure with business. He became clerk or assistant to the English resident or consul at Amsterdam, and soon acquired the commercial information he so much desired. Senovert, who, though originally a captain of French engineers, died a major general in the Russian service, and who edited, in 1790, the works of Law, states that he not only gambled at this period on all the exchanges of Europe, but that he played high at all games of chance. Most of his bets were lucky ones; for his calculations were wonderfully correct. It is believed that, with the money made in Holland, he lived en grand seigneur at Venice, Genoa, Florence, Naples, and Rome. The Bank of England having been formed by a speculative countryman of Law's — one William Patterson — about the period of his arrival in London, this great and thriving institution seems early to have excited his attention.
About 1700, according to Daire, John Law seems to have been imbued with that fixed and false idea which was the mainspring of his life — a part, as it were, of his blood and being. This was his cardinal theory that paper-money is the circulating medium par excellence, precisely for the reason that itnas no intrinsic value. The germ of this idea may be found in early publications of his called "Money and Trade," originally published at Edinburgh. His countrymen, however, refused to adopt his theory in practice, and it met with no better success in London. This double check in both capitals did not damp Law's enthusiasm. In the interest of his peculiar views he now made a complete tour of Europe, explaining and vaunting his system. For fifteen years he sought to indoctrinate and enlist every influential man in the countries through which he travelled in his support. As a regular and systematic gambler, and as a man often moving in good society, he was thrown into the company of the high - born and wealthy, comprising courtiers, ministers, and diplomatists. While winning their money he also gained information from these gentlemen, and established himself in their opinion as a clever calculator and financier. Having learned, in 1708, when Desmarets was finance minister, that France was reduced to financial straits, Law travelled from Brussels to Paris to propose his scheme of paper-money, but did not succeed any better than at home. Nor was this his only misfortune. He exhibited so much luxury in the capital of France, and was so profuse in his expenditure, that ho was forced by the lieutenant of police, D'Argenson, to quit the capital. Of the social life of Law at this period wo have trustworthy evidence M. Thiers, not always to be relied on in matters of fact, is, after the memoirs of the time, correct when he states that at a supper of a celebrated courtesan, La Duclos, the "Projector," as Mr. Ainsworth calls him, commenced his game with 100,000 francs, or £4000 in money. Nor was this large capital the only distinguishing trait. In order to mark more quickly the progress of the game, Law caused counters of the value of eighteen louis to be made, so that he could more summarily count his accustomed gains, for losses were the rare exception. It was this uniform trick of winning and the playing for the highest possible stakes that became so distasteful to D'Argenson. The gambling successes of Law had also given umbrage to the police in other capitals. It was about the period of his forced oxpulsion from France that the intimacy of Law with the Duke of Orleans commenced. He had previously submitted his projects to Victor Amadamaeus, king of Sardinia, who, to use his own royal phrase, was not rich enough to ruin himself. Law proceeded from Turin to Vienna, where his success as to paper-money was not greater than in Italy and England. On the death of Louis XIV., in 1715, he again visited Paris, taking with him, according to Senovert, a capital of more than two million of francs. He was well receivod by the regent, to whom he addressed two memoirs on the subject of banks. The ideas contained in those letters wore submitted to a Council of Regency, but were not approved of by that body. But Law had succeeded in securing the favour of the most influential person in the state; and, on the 2nd of May, 1716, he obtained, eight months after his arrival in France, the privilege of creating, under the name of a general bank, a species of bank in shares, one quarter of the capital being in silver and three quarters in billets d’état. Originally this was a bank receiving lodgments of ready money, discounting commercial paper, issuing notes payable in specie; and, as such, the establishment was successful. But it soon lost this character, became involved in the operations of its founder in fund-gambling, and, after a few years, the establishment suspended its payments. In August 1707 Law obtained the privilege of establishing, or, to use a French term, creating the Louisiana Company. It was a joint-stock company, under the name of Compagnie d’Occident, for tho purposes of commerce and colonization. It consisted of 200,000 shares of 500 livres each.exclusively payable in billets d’état, which securities had fallen to 72, and soon after this arrangement rose to par. In 1718 Law became, if not in name, at least in fact, the principal director of the finances of France. He at once ordered a new coinage — a stop very prejudicial to the holders of specie. On the 4th September, 1718, he became chief farmer of the French tobacco monopoly. On the 4th December in the same year his bank was declared a royal bank; the issue of notes, whether as to number or amount, depended on the decision of council, and payments might be made either in ecus or in livres tournois — that is to say, in money that had no fixed value. From this period the "Projector" seems to have thought that everything was in his favour, and that, having obtained all the privileges of the company of Senegal, and of the French, China, and East India companies, he could raise the value of his shares ad libitum. Very soon the actions rose tenfold; and, in May 1719, a frightful system of gambling commenced in the Rue Quincampoix. By the end of November shares were worth 36 and 40 per cent, beyond the nominal capital. The "Projector" was now, to use Mr. Ainsworth's epithet, the idol of the day, and there was a question of raising him a statue in 1719. In the commencement of 1720 the delusion still continued, and Law was named, in the place of D'Argenson, Comptroller-General of Finance. Previously to this appointment taking place, he became a naturalized Frenchman and a convert to the Church of Rome. Mr. Harrison Ainsworth graphically details the progress of this conversion, and shows how energetically but vainly Lady Catherine Law opposed herself to it. Law was ambitious to be minister, and was even content to be indoctrinated into Romanism by such a reprobate and hypocrite as the Abbé de Tencin. From ambitious and sordid motives he yielded and became a Papist when his wife held fast to her faith. But, from the moment of his apostacy, his fortunes began to wane. He slided jesuitically into Romanism, rather than boldly adopted it, as if he were ashamed of the deed he had done. The progress of his perversion is delicately and dexterously detailed by Mr. Ainsworth. He holds by the memoirs of the time, rich and copious in details; and these details he renders more dramatic by a judicious and artistic handling.
A desperate reaction followed this extraordinary success, and the star of Law became eclipsed. He was deprived of the comptrollersnip of the finances, and was from that moment obliged to work at the demolition of the edifice which he had so elaborately built up. The indignation of the public and the attacks of the parliament obliged him first to quit Paris and subsequently France. He retired first to Brussels, and subsequently to this country. He was presented to George I. in 1721, and soon after was named minister of France in Bavaria, where he remained till the death of the regent, when he lost the pension of 20,000 livres which this prince allowed him. The India Company as well as the French Government disputed his accounts; and at length there remained to him only 800 louis and the regent diamond, which he was accustomed to pledge when he wanted money. Montesquieu visited him in his retreat at Venice, and observes — " C'etait l’même homme, toujours l'esprit occupe de projets, toujours la tete remplie de calculs." The daughter of Law married Lord Wallingfbrd. His son died young and unmarried. His brother, who had settled in France, founded the family of Lauriston. His descendant became a peer of France under the BourbonB. The vast operations of Law are known among French economists by the word "Système." The great error of the " Projector was that he confounded price with value. He thought a rise in the price of his shares augmented the capital and increased the wealth of the nation. He considered the multiplication of paper-money created a value which only belongs to labour. The success of the system was, however, wonderful; but it did not last long. The immense fortunes made by the first speculators in the shares induced crowds to rush into the market. Those who had not ready money sold houses and lands to become actionnaires. Maitres d'hotels, valets, frotteurs, cooks, and chimney-sweeps, who speculated at first in the system, became millionaires; and Mr. Ainsworth introduces into his volumes two of Law's Irish chairmen, who came over to Paris and did a pretty successful business in rigging the market. Law's own coachman made a considerable fortune. In August 1719 the shares were at 500 per cent, premium. On Law's illness they fell to 445, and when he was convalescent mounted to 610. Tho price of all commodities while the delusion lasted rose exorbitantly, and land sold at fifty years' purchase. Mr. Ainsworth, in following the career of Law, gives us a description of club gambling and fashionable life at the death of William III. and the commencement of the reign of Anne, and introduces us to Sarah of Marlborough and Godolphin. We are subsequently taken to Paris and introduced to the regent, the infamous Dubois, Noailles Villeroi, the cynical St. Simon, and D'Argenson, the schoolfellow of Voltaire. We aro next treated to a history of the bank and the Compagnie d'Occident, and to lively descriptions of the scenes in the Rue Quincampoix. Mr. Ainsworth most accurately and dramatically, and with a piquant sauce, serves up to us, tout chaud, the memoirs, history, and chronique scandaleuse of that extraordinary and stirring time, and ends with the downfall of the system of John Law the "Projector." The volumes will be read with interest. When Mr. Ainsworth has leisure to write another book, we would suggest to him the South Sea scheme. K.
K. “John Law the Projector.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (October 1864): 407-08. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street.” Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 27 July 2016.
Ainsworth, William Harrison. John Law the Projector. 3L vols. ondon: Chapman and Hall, 1864.
Created 2 February 2001; last modified 8 June 2007