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Nothing could be more insignificant than Louisiana in the estimation of her European rulers, when Crozat's charter became one of those things that are among the past. But by one of those rapid transitions so common in human affairs, she was suddenly destined to exercise a wonderful influence over the powerful kingdom over which she was the weak progeny. In her very name there was soon to be discovered something as dazzling to the imagination, as the richest diamond is to the eye of woman. A subtle conjurer arose, who, waving aloft his magic wand, and using that name so obscure, to give more force to his incantations, prepared for France an intoxicating draught which made her reel as in drunkenness, and nearly prostrated her to the ground, despite of her ever-reviving energies. The star of John Law had risen on the horizon of France: and the Company of the Indies, the great Mississippi scheme, p192 of which he was the chief projector, the destinies of France and of Louisiana, the expected results of such commerce as the world had never known before, the reports of hidden treasures concealed in inexhaustible mines of silver and gold, were to be indissolubly united in the annals of history and of folly.
On the 13th of August, 1717, the situation of affairs in the colony of Louisiana having been brought before the Council of State at Versailles, it was decided by that body, presided over by the Duke of Orleans, Regent of France during the minority of Louis the XVth, that, "for many essential reasons which it would be superfluous to recite, because they were known to every one, it was to the interest of France that the colony of Louisiana should be fostered and preserved." — Such were the terms of that decree, which went on saying, that, "whereas it had been demonstrated, in the case of Crozat, that the colonization of the province of Louisiana was an undertaking beyond the strength of any private individual: and whereas this undertaking would not become the King, on account of the commercial details which were its inseparable concomitant, it was resolved that Louisiana should be intrusted to the administration of a company." From this resolution sprang the creation of the Western Company, or Company of the Indies, whose charter of incorporation was registered by the parliament of Paris, on the 6th of September, 1717.
Thus the monopoly granted to Crozat ceased, merely to be transferred to a Company. The government of one ruler was to be succeeded by an oligarchy, and the worst of all, a commercial oligarchy, an association of cunning stockjobbers, of robbing directors, and of silly dupes in the shape of stockholders. There were not men wanting at the time who foresaw that the creation p193 of the famous Company of the Indies, of which Law was the soul, and which became one of the most popular schemes that ever flourished in France, was destined to impart to the colonization of Louisiana only the short-lived appearance of galvanic vitality, but that, ending soon as all delusions do, it would, in its collapse and bursting, be fatal to the speculators engaged in the experiment, and be productive of the most mischievous results to France. Some of these readers of coming events attempted in vain to warn their fellow-citizens against the evils which they predicted. But the weak voice of individual reprobation was drowned in the loud acclamation of the multitude. When the current of the public mind runs impetuously in one direction, when was it ever checked? It sweeps furiously over such obstacles as wisdom or patriotism may interpose, and it even derives fresh impetus from the very attempt to arrest its course.
Who was John Law, to whom the use of the name of Louisiana was destined to give so much celebrity in the beginning of the 18th century? In the romantic city of Edinburgh, the pride of Scotland, he was born in 1671. A checquered and a singularly varied life his was doomed to be, as checquered and varied as the changeful appearance of those ever-flitting clouds which chase each other through the fields of heaven, now assuming fantastic shapes, now dyed in splendor with the morning or evening rays of the sun, or black with the conception of coming storms. Gay halls and gloomy cells there are in the palace of Holyrood, within sight of which that obscure child was cradled, and of which the projecting battlements so often darkened with their shade his curling locks, as he indulged in the gambols of his age. When in his youth he strolled through that antiquated abode of departed royalty, and there gazed p194 with mixed feelings of admiration and awe at the hoary relics of time, did any prophetic spirit shadow forth to him the gay halls and gloomy cells of his future existence, when he should attain to manhood? The boy had in him the seeds of exalted talent and over-wrought passion. Talent and passion — those unruly steeds upon which, when seated, man not unfrequently speeds away in a mad career, faster than he chooses, whither he heeds not or cares not, and oftener for his ruin than this good, if he does not check them with the reins of morality or the curb of religion.
John Law, or Jessamy Law, or Beau Law, as his playmates called him, for he was as handsome as a mother's heart could wish him, was the son of a goldsmith and banker. Did this circumstance have any influence on his future career, and did he inherit his passion for the precious metals and for banking operations? He was educated in Edinburgh, and he is said to have been no mean adept in versification, if not in poetry. But he soon intuitively discovered that a scribbler's lot was not very enviable, and following the natural bent of his genius, he became so remarkably proficient in mathematics that he could, with the greatest facility, solve the most difficult problems of that abstruse science. He also devoted his attention to the study of trade and manufactures, and made himself master of the principles of public and private credit. He minutely investigated the theory and practice of taxation, and all matters constituting the arcana of political economy. Such were the deep laid and solid foundations of his future eminence.
But John Law was a votary of pleasure as well as of study, and whenever he emerged from his closet, it was to attend the gambling-table, the racing-ground, and to indulge in convivial and amorous exploits. To some p195 men, excitement of some sort or other is the very breath of life. It is the air which inflates and expands their intellectual lungs. Without it, the flow of their mind would stagnate. Such was John Law. An orphan at the age of fourteen, free from paternal control, and the heir to an ample fortune, he had within his reach all the means of vicious indulgence, and sadly did he avail himself of them to barter away the very altars of his household gods. In 1694, goaded on by the desire of extending his sphere of enjoyments, he paid a visit to London, that great center of attraction, where his wit, his graces, his manly beauty, his numerous attainments, gained him admittance into the best society. There, however, his profusions of every sort, his love for deep play, and his gallantries, soon rid him of his patrimonial lands of Lauriston and Randleston. Their broad acres were converted into guineas which melted away in the hands of prodigality, and thus, in early life, through his own folly, John Law stands before us as a bankrupt!
That bankrupt was also an adulterer, and the acknowledged paramour of a Mrs. Lawrence. That intrigue brought him into collision with a Mr. Wilson, whom he killed in a duel. Tried for murder, he was found guilty, sentenced to death, and pardoned by the crown. But an appeal was taken by a brother of the deceased, and the appeal was pending before the King's Bench, when Law, not deeming it prudent to await the result, escaped from his prison, and fled to the continent. Law was then twenty-three years of age. A bankrupt, an adulterer, a murderer, and an exiled outlaw! If to feel is to live, Law had thus gone through an intensity and variety of feelings, which, in the spring of youth, must have made his soul and mind as gray with age, as if over them a century had passed.
To Holland, Law retired for an asylum:— he could not p196 have made a choice more congenial to his tastes, and no place in Europe could afford more facilities to his favorite investigations on trade, finances, public credit, and political economy, than that country, which, of all others, was peculiarly indebted to them for its national importance, and even for its existence. During his residence there, he took care to improve every opportunity to make himself thoroughly acquainted with the constitution and the practical operation of the Bank of Amsterdam.
John Law was not the man, even in a foreign country, to remain long without friends or protectors, and he soon contrived to ingratiate himself with the British Resident in Holland, of whom he became the secretary. But the phlegmatic temperament of the Dutch not presenting him with the materials which he wished for the accomplishment of such schemes as were ripening in his brain, and having received the assurance that he had no longer any thing to fear on account of the death of Wilson, he returned to Edinburgh in 1700, and in the following year he published a pamphlet under this title: "Proposals and Reasons for establishing a Council of Trade." The proverbial prudence of the Scotch received this work with coldness. Not discouraged by this failure, Law showed the remarkable aptitude which he had to possess himself of the favor of all those whom he thought proper to propitiate, and gained the support of the Duke of Argyle, his sons, the Marquis of Lorn and Lord Archibald Campbell, the Marquis of Tweeddale, and other persons of rank and distinction.
Under their patronage, he presented to the Scottish parliament, in 1705, a plan for removing the difficulties under which the kingdom had then to be suffering from the scarcity of money and from the stoppage of payments by the bank; and in illustration of his views on p197 that subject, he gave publicity to another work, entitled "Money and Trade considered, with a proposal for supplying the nation with money." What could be more tempting! and what a pity that this grand projector did not live in this projecting age of ours! Like other men, he came too soon.
The proposal of Law, says one of his biographers, was that commissioners, created by an act of parliament, and remaining under their control, should be empowered to issue notes, either in the way of loan or at ordinary interest, upon landed security, provided the debts should not exceed half, or at the most, two thirds of the value of the lands, or upon land pledges, redeemable within a certain period, to the full value of the land:— or lastly, upon irredeemable sales to the amount of the price agreed upon. Paper money thus issued would, he conceived, be equal in value to gold and silver coin of the same denomination, and might even be preferred to those metals, as not being, like them, liable to fall in value. But this scheme, though powerfully supported by the court party, and by the influence of such men as the Duke of Argyle and others, was rejected by the parliament on the ground that, "to establish any kind of paper credit, so as to oblige it to pass, was an improper expedient for the nation." Wise Scotchmen! They also apprehended that if Law's plan were adopted, all the estates of the kingdom would thereby be brought to a complete dependence upon the bank, or collaterally upon the government, the bank itself being dependent upon the government. It is remarkable that more than a century after, in 1827 and 1833, Law's plan, or one very similar, was put into operation in Louisiana, under the titles of "The Citizens' Bank" and "The Consolidated Association of the Planters of Louisiana," and p198 that it produced the same disastrous effects that were anticipated by the Scotch in 1705.
It soon became evident to Law, that his countrymen and the English were not sufficiently imaginative to allow him to tempt them into his gigantic experiments, and that to better his fortune, it was necessary that he should seek elsewhere for more pliable instruments. Accordingly he returned to the continent, whither let us follow him, as he flits, like an ignis fatuus, from place to place. Now we see him a man of fashion in Brussels, where his constant success at play brought him into unfavorable notoriety. Then he dashes into the vortex of Paris, where it is said that he introduced the game called Faro, and became still more conspicuous than at Brussels by his enormous gains at the gaming-table. His graceful person, the charms of his conversation, his insinuating manners, were rapidly favoring his ascent into the highest regions of society, when D'Argenson, the Lieutenant or Minister of Police, thought proper to cut short his brilliant career, and to order him out of the kingdom, with this pithy observation, "That Scot is too expert at the game which he has introduced."
He retired to Geneva, where he gave an extraordinary proof of his power of extracting money from the dryest sources, by gaining large sums at the expense of the sober-minded and close-fisted citizens of that puritanic little commonwealth. In Genoa and in Venice, he gave such evidence of his invariable luck at play, that the magistrates of these two cities deemed it their duty to interfere for the protection of their fellow-citizens, and to banish Law from these over-exhausted theaters of his exploits. At Florence, he became acquainted with the Duke of Vendôme, whom he favored with the loan of a large sum of money. At Neufchatel, p199 he obtained access to the Prince of Conti, to whom, as to the Duke of Vendôme, he imparted his financial schemes. He was thus skillfully securing protection for the introduction of his plans into France, on the first favorable opportunity. For several years Law rambled over Europe, proposing his financial systems everywhere and to every body. During a short residence at Turin, he pressed the subject on the King of Sardinia, Victor Amadeus — but that prudent sovereign answered: "I am not rich enough to afford being ruined. France is the proper field where your speculative genius ought to cast its seeds, and where you will reap rich harvests. I am sure that your schemes will be to the taste of my mercurial neighbors. To them, therefore, I would advise you to repair."
This advice seemed to Law a sensible one, and acting under it, he returned to Paris with the enormous sum of two millions and five hundred thousand francs, which were the result of his success in gaming, and of his speculations in stocks and public funds. Soon after his arrival Louis the XIVth died, which was a circumstance favorable to his pretensions. He had no longer to deal only with the prudent Desmarets, comptroller-general of the finances of the state, whose wisdom had discarded the tempting propositions of that adventurer in 1708. But now, in 1716, when the Duke of Orleans, as Regent of France, found himself at the head of the government, the financial situation of France had become desperate. The public debt was immense: it was a legacy bequeathed by the military glory of Louis the XIVth, and the other pompous vanities of his long reign. The consequence was that the load of taxation was overwhelming, merely to pay the interest of this debts, without any hope of diminishing the capital. All the sources of industry were dried up: the very p200 winds which wafted the barks of commerce seemed to have died away under the pressure of the time: trade stood still: the manufactures were struck with palsy: the merchant, the trader, the artificer, once flourishing in affluence, were now transformed into clamorous beggars, and those who could yet command some small means were preparing to emigrate to foreign parts. The life-blood that animated the kingdom was stagnating in all its arteries: and the danger of an awful crisis became such, that it was actually proposed in the Council of State to expunge the public debt by an act of national bankruptcy. But the Regent has the credit of having rejected the proposition; and a commission was appointed to inquire into the financial situation of the kingdom, and to prepare a remedy for the evil.
It was at that time, when the wisest heads in France were not able to see their way through the embarrassments of the treasury, that John Law came forward with his panacea. It was to liquidate the debt of the state, to increase its revenue, to diminish taxation: and all these prodigies were to be suddenly produced by the easiest process in the world — the creation of a bank, by which fictitious capital, quite as good as any real one, would be produced at will. The Regent, who was incessantly in want of money, and whose ardent imagination was always easily captivated by every daring and extraordinary conception, eagerly jumped at the conclusions presented by Law, or L'as, as he was called by the French. He became even a favorite of that prince, and was admitted into all the licentious privacies of the Palais Royal. Soon after, in May, 1716, in spite of the opposition made by all the financiers of the kingdom, Law obtained letters patent, not, it is true, complying with all his magnificent schemes, but establishing on a very limited scale the bank of which he p201 was the originator, and which was to bear his name, with a capital of six millions of livres, divided into shares of five hundred livres. It was to be a private undertaking, and intended by the government as an experiment.
This institution met with so much success, and became so popular, that in April, 1717, the Council of State assumed the responsibility of ordering that its notes be received as specie by the royal treasury, in all its branches. The influence of Law on the Regent was daily on the increase, and it was he who prevailed on that prince to purchase for the king the celebrated diamond, which, from that circumstance, was called the Regent, and which is still the property of republican France, and a part of its public domain. It was a curiosity then thought to be unique of its kind; and the Regent, although strongly tempted, had long hesitated to invest millions in such an unproductive manner, when the revenue of the kingdom was far below its expenses. But Law removed his scruples, by persuading him that he had the means not only of remedying the necessities of France, but of making her richer than she had ever been.
Law now began to develop the stupendous projects he had so long meditated. The success of his private bank had gained him so much credit, that the Regent was induced to change its character, and to make it a royal institution. Law's bank was abolished in December, 1718, to give way to the Royal Bank, of which Law was named the director-general. From that fruitful parent trunk sprung branches which were established at Lyons, Tours, La Rochelle, Orleans, and Amiens.
It will be remembered that, as before stated, the charter of the Mississippi Company had been registered p202 by the parliament of Paris on the 6th of September, 1717. The capital of the company was one hundred millions of livres, to be furnished by stockholders, and to be divided into shares of five hundred livres. Aliens were permitted to become members of the company, and their shares were exempted from the "droits d'aubaine," and from confiscation in case of war. The "droit d'aubaine" is the right which the king had to inherit all the property which an alien left at his death. To entice subscribers, their shares were made payable in a depreciated paper currency, called "billets d'état," or state bonds, which, however, in the hands of subscribers, were taken at par or full value, although their depreciation amounted to between sixty and seventy per cent. This was such a tempting bait, that it was greedily gulped down by the public, and the subscription was soon more than filled up. By this operation of taking the depreciated paper currency of the state in payment of subscriptions, the company became the creditor of the state for a sum of one hundred millions of livres, on which interest was to be paid at the rate of four per cent.
The following were the principal articles of the company's charter:—
It had the exclusive privilege of trading with Louisiana during twenty-five years, and also the monopoly of the beaver trade with Canada, it being understood that the king reserved to himself the right of determining the number of skins that the company should be bound to purchase annually from the Canadians, at the price fixed by the government of his Majesty.
The company was authorized to make treaties with the Indians, and to wage war against them in cases of necessity. It had taken care to secure the absolute ownership of all the mines which it could discover and p203 work, and it is needless to say that much reliance was placed on this article of the charter.
The faculty was given to the company of making grants of land, of levying troops, of raising fortifications, of appointing the governors of the colony and the other officers commanding the troops, provided they should, on presentation, be accepted and commissioned by the king. The right of recalling or altering these appointments was also reserved to the company.
To build ships of war and cast cannon, to appoint and remove judges and officers of justice, except those of the Superior Council, were some of the numerous powers granted to this mighty company.
Military officers in Louisiana and all others in the French service were allowed, with the king's license, to enlist in the pay of the company. While in that service, their respective grades in the navies or land forces of the realm were to be retained, and they had the gracious promise of the king that whatever service they might render to the company would be acknowledged as rendered to himself.
By the consular jurisdiction of the city of Paris, all civil suits to which the company might be a party, were to be determined; with a right of appeal, in cases above a certain amount, to the parliament of Paris.
The company was prohibited from employing other than French vessels and crews in trading with Louisiana, and all goods found on the company's vessels were to be presumed its property, unless the contrary was proved.
Frenchmen, removing to Louisiana, were to preserve their national character, and their children, born there, were to be considered as the natural born subjects of the king. The same privilege was granted to the children of all other European settlers in Louisiana, provided p204 they professed the Roman Catholic religion. To encourage emigration, it was stipulated that during the continuance of the company's charter, the inhabitants of Louisiana were to be exempted from the payment of any tax, duty, or imposition whatever.
To promote the building of vessels in Louisiana, where it was reported that the most magnificent timber existed in its boundless forests, a bounty was to be awarded for every vessel there built, on its arrival in France.
In anticipation of wars with the Indians, it was agreed that forty thousand pounds of powder were to be delivered annually to the company, out of the royal magazines, at the rate of the manufacturing cost.
The stockholders were to have a vote for every fifty shares. During the two first years, the affairs of the company were to be conducted by directors appointed by the king, and afterward, by others, elected triennially by the stockholders.
In order to minister to the religious wants of the colonists, the obligation was laid upon the company to build churches and to provide for a sufficient number of clergymen. It was understood that Louisiana was to remain part of the diocese of Quebec, under whose spiritual authority it had always been since it had been settled by the French.
The company obliged itself to transport to Louisiana, before the expiration of its charter, six thousand white persons and three thousand negroes: but it was stipulated that these persons should not be brought from another French colony, without the consent of the governor of that colony.
In consideration of the charges assumed by the company, its goods were to be exempted from the payment of any duty, and the king promised not to grant any p205 letters of dispensation or respite to any debtor of the company. He also gave the company the solemn assurance of his effectual protection against any foreign nation.
If the company, as it is seen, took special care to keep its debtors irredeemably within its reach, it was no less solicitous to withdraw itself, as much as possible, from the grasp of any one of the creditors of its stockholders, and it had a clause inserted in its charter, by which the effects, shares, and profits of the stockholder could not be seized and sold either in the hands of its cashier, its clerks, or agents, except it be in cases of open and declared bankruptcy, or on account of the death of the party.
All the lands, coasts, harbors, and islands in the colony of Louisiana were granted to the company, as they were to Crozat, on condition of its taking the customary oath of faith and homage, as practiced in such cases, and of furnishing to every King of France, on his accession to the throne, a crown of gold of the weight of thirty marks.a
Thus Louisiana was constituted into a sort of commercial fief, and the Mississippi Company rose almost to the dignity of those great feudatory vassals who, in the days of old, had been, alternately, the pride, the support, and the curse of France. It did not spring into existence, it is true, in the shape of a Duke of Burgundy, who, backed by one hundred thousand men, could, if he pleased, set at defiance his liege Lord, and could proudly enter through the battered walls of Paris, with crested helmet on his head, and the truncheon of command in his hand. But it was perhaps a being more powerful and more dangerous — it was a company — an incorporeal conglomeration, an unfathomable, uncontrollable, unaccountable creation — an agent p206 with such divided responsibility that it amounted to nothing, and, as Lord Coke says of corporations — a thing without a soul, to which, nevertheless, a power more efficacious and more fearful than that exercised over armed men was delegated — the power of controlling commerce!
Law was appointed director-general of the Mississippi Company, as he had been of the Royal Bank, and both institutions were merged into one another. That would have been enough power to satisfy a less craving ambition, but Law was not the man to stop short in his career of aggrandizement. Thus, he soon obtained that the farm of tobacco, that is the exclusive privilege of selling this favorite weed, be made over to the company by the government, at an advance of rent exceeding two millions of livres. This was a pretty rich feather in his cap, but it was not enough; and stepping from one acquisition to another, he immediately afterward procured for the company of which he had the absolute control the grant of the charter and the effects of the Senegal Company. It was piling up Pelion upon Ossa, and the world stood aghast with astonishment at the extent of the concessions made by the French government to a foreign adventurer. A Royal Bank, the Tobacco farm, the Mississippi Company, and the Senegal Company, with all their millions, rights, privileges, effects and powers, all combined into a gigantic unity! — and that unity put as an instrument into the hands of another unity in the shape of a man! This was something curious to look at and to study in its operations.
Wise people thought that the climax of folly had been reached; but John Law laughed in his sleeve at their inexperience, or their ignorance of his skill, and before they had breathing time to recover from their surprise, he gave another proof of his wonderful legerdemain, p207 by purloining from the French government a still more extraordinary grant than the preceding ones — which was the exclusive privilege of trading to the East Indies, China and the South Seas, together with all the possessions and effects of the China and India Companies, now dissolved, upon condition of liquidating all just claims upon them. It was then that the Company of the West, or Mississippi Company, dropped its original name to take up that of the Company of the Indies, with the privilege of creating additional shares to the amount of twenty-five millions, payable in coin.
This, it seems, ought to have been enough to satiate the most inordinate appetite. Not so with John Law. On the 25th of July, 1719, the mint was made over to the already overgrown Company of the Indies, that huge financial Polyphemus, which owed its existence to the great Scotch projector. This other concession was made for a consideration of fifty millions of livres, to be paid to the king within fifteen months. This time, it might have been permitted to believe that the digestive organs of this board constrictor, of this king of speculators, were more than overgorged with the accumulation of superabundant nutrition with which they had been so lavishly favored. But John Law asked for something more! Was he shut up in a lunatic asylum for his mad presumption? No! — he obtained what he begged. Will not the dullest mind be stimulated into curiosity, and will not the quick inquiry be: What more could John Law presume to grasp? This:— on the 27th of August, 1719, he obtained for his progeny, the prodigious Company of the Indies, the great farms of the revenues of the kingdom, which the Regent took out of the hands of the farmers general and gave to the company, in consideration of its paying an advance of rent of three millions and a half of livres: and on the p208 31st of the same month, to cap the climax of all these almost supernatural wonders, Law obtained again for the same company the general receipt or collection of all the other branches of the king's revenues.
Through this curious process of complex annexation and assimilation, John Law had succeeded in erecting the most stupendous financial fabric that has ever been presented to the world. In one company, and through it, in one man, was vested nothing less than the whole privileges, effects and possessions of the foreign trade companies of France, the great farms of the kingdom, the mint, the general receipt of the king's revenues, and the management and property of a royal bank, with an immense capital! Thus, one man, an obscure foreign adventurer, through his creature, the company, had condensed into one lump, which his hands encircled, all the trade, taxes, and revenues of one of the most powerful kingdoms of Europe, and through the Royal Bank he might, according to his will, increase to any amount the circulating medium of that country! Does not this strictly historical sketch smack of the wild conception of a delirious mind? Is not truth often more incredible than fiction, and in reading these lines, would not misanthropy be tempted to exclaim: "Hail to thee, mischievous sorcerer! Three times hail to thee, John Law!" — while poetical fancy would be permitted to inquire if the Weird Sisters, the foul witches of his native heaths, had not furnished him with the spell under the influence of which so many millions of his fellow-beings had been touched with insanity.
It is not astonishing that on the showering of so many grants on the company, its shares gradually rose from 500 to 1000, to 5000 and to 10,000 livres, which was more than sixty times the sum they were originally sold for, if the depreciation of the "billetsd'état," or state p209 bonds, with which they were paid, be taken into account. The desire to become stockholder in a company which promised to realize the fable of the hen with golden eggs, was fevered into frenzy. There was a general rush of greedy subscribers, far exceeding the number wanted, and in their struggles to be ranked among the privileged ones whose claims were to be admitted, the greatest interest was exerted, and every stratagem put into practice.
At the same time, the press was teeming with publications on the Mississippi, or the Colony of Louisiana, and France was flooded with pamphlets describing that newly-discovered country, and the advantages which it offered to emigrants. The luxuriant imagination of prolific writers was taxed, to clothe Louisiana with all the perfections they could invent. It was more than the old Eden, so long lost to mankind. There, the picturesque was happily blended with the fertile, and abundance smiled on rocky mountains as on the alluvial plains of the valleys. The climate was such that all the vegetable productions of the globe existed, or could be introduced with success in that favored land. To scratch the soil, would call forth the spontaneous growth of the richest harvests of every kind. All the fruits ever known were to be gathered in profusion from the forests, all the year round, and the most luscious peaches, pears, apples, and other like nutritious delicacies, dropping from their parent boughs, were piled up in heaps under cool shades and on the velvet banks of bubbling streams. There, dust and mud were equally excluded, as the ground was lined in all seasons with a thick carpet of flowers, endless in variety, and perfuming the air with their sweet breath. The finest breed of all domestic or useful animals was there to be found in all the primitive vigor and gentleness of their antediluvian p210 perfection. The poor peasant who, during a long life in France, had never dreamed of eating meat, would there feed on nothing less than wild ducks, venison, pheasants, snipes and woodcocks. The birds kept up a never-ceasing concert, which would have shamed the opera singing of Paris. The rivers and lakes were stocked with fish, so abundant that they would suffice to nourish millions of men, and so delicate that no king ever had any such on his table.
The seasons were so slightly marked that the country might be said to be blessed with a perpetual spring. None but gentle winds fluttered over this paradise, and in their gamboling flight through boundless prairies and forests, they produced the effect of Eolian harps, lulling enchanted nature to sleep with heavenly music. The sky was brighter, the sun more gorgeous, the moon more chastely serene and pure, and the nights more lovely than anywhere else. Heaven itself seemed to bend down upon earth in conjugal dalliance, and to environ it with circumambient love. There, it is true, it could not be said to have been positively ascertained that the fountain of eternal youth had been discovered, but it was beyond a doubt that there was in the atmosphere a peculiar element which preserved from putrefaction; — and the human body, being impregnated with it, was so little worn out by the action of its organs, that it could keep itself in existence almost indefinitely; and the Indians were known to retain the appearance of youth even after having attained five or six hundred years. Those very Indians had conceived such an attachment for the white men, whom they considered as gods, that they would not allow them to labor, and insisted on performing themselves all the work that might be necessary for the comfort of their pale-faced brethren. p211 It was profanation in their eye not to minister to all the wants of their idolized guests.
More enticing than all that, was the pretended discovery of inexhaustible mines of gold and silver, which, however, it would not be necessary to work by the usual tedious process, because the whole surface of the country was strewed with lumps of gold, and when the waters of the lakes and rivers were filtered, particularly the thick water of the Mississippi, it yielded an invaluable deposit of gold. As to silver, it was so common that it would become of no value, and would have to be used in the shape of square stones, to pave the public roads. The fields were covered with an indigenous plant which was gifted with the most singular property. The dew which gathered within the perfumed cups of its flowers would, in the course of a single night, be converted into a solid diamond: and the soft texture of the flowers bursting open and dropping down under the weight of its contents, would leave the precious gem resting on the stem in unrobed splendor, and reflecting back the rays of the morning sun. What is written on California in our days would appear tame when compared to the publications on Louisiana in 1719: and the far-famed and extravagant description of the banks of the Mississippi given at a later period by Chateaubriand, would, at the time I speak of, have been hooted at, as doing injustice to the merits of the new possession France had acquired.
When the extreme gullibility of mankind, as demonstrated by the occurrences of every day, is taken into consideration, what I here relate will not appear exaggerated or incredible. Be it as it may, these descriptions were believed in France, and from the towering palace to the humblest shed in the kingdom, nothing else was talked of but Louisiana and its wonders. The p212 national debt was to be paid instantaneously with the Louisiana gold, France was to purchase or to conquer the rest of the world, and every Frenchman was to be a wealthy lord. There never had been a word invested with such magical charms as the name of Louisiana. It produced delirium in every brain: to Louisiana every one wished to go, as now to California, and some of the most unimproved parts of that colony were actually sold for 30,000 livres the square league, which, considering the difference in value in metallic currency between that time and the present, makes that sum almost equal to twenty thousand dollars at the present day.b
Who could describe with sufficient graphic fidelity the intense avidity with which the shares of the Company of the Indies were hunted up? All ranks were seized with the same frantic infatuation. To be a stockholder was to be reputed rich, and the poorest beggar, when he exhibited the proof that by some windfall or other he had become the owner of one single share, rose at once to the importance of a wealthy man, and could command the largest credit. There was a general struggle to raise money, for the purpose of speculating in the stocks of the marvelous company which was to convert every thing it touched into gold. Every kind of property was offered for sale, and made payable in stocks. Castellated domains which had been for centuries the proudly cherished possessions of the same families were bartered away for a mess of financial porridge, and more than one representative of a knightly house doffed off the warm lining that had been bequeathed to him by his ancestors, to dress himself, like a bedlamite, in the worthless rags of unsubstantial paper. Such rapid mutations in real estate the world had never seen before! Lands, palaces, edifices p213 of every sort, were rapidly shifted from hand to hand, like balls in a tennis-court. It was truly a curious sight to behold a whole chivalrous nation turned into a confused multitude of swindling, brawling, clamorous, frantic stock-jobbers. Holy cardinals, archbishops, bishops, with but too many of their clergy, forgetting their sacred character, were seen to launch their barks on the dead sea of perdition to which they were tempted, and eagerly to throw the fisherman's net into those troubled waters of speculation which were lashed into fury by the demon of avarice. Princes of the royal blood became hawkers of stocks: haughty peers of the realm rushed on the Rialto, and Shylock-like, exulted in bartering and trafficking in bonds. Statesmen, magistrates, warriors, assuming the functions of pedlers, were seen wandering about the streets and public places, offering to buy and to sell stocks, shares, or actions. Nothing else was talked of; the former usual topics of conversation stood still. Not only women, but ladies of the highest rank forgot the occupations of their sex, to rush into the vortex of speculation, and but too many among them sold every thing, not excepting their honor, to become stockholders.
The company having promised an annual dividend of 200 livres on every share of 500 livres, which, it must be remembered, had been originally paid for in depreciated billetsd'état, or state bonds, making the interest to be received on every share still more enormous, the delirium soon culminated to its highest point. Every thing foreign to the great Mississippi scheme was completely forgotten. The people seemed to have but one pursuit, but one object in life: mechanics dropped their tools, tradesmen closed their shops; there was but one profession, one employment, one occupation, for persons of all ranks — that of speculating in stocks: and the p214 most moderate, the few who abstained from joining in the wild-goose chase, were so intensely absorbed by the contemplation of the spectacle which was offered to their bewildered gaze, that they took no concern in any thing else. Quincampoix Street, where the offices of the company were kept, was literally blocked up by the crowd which the fury of speculation and the passion for sudden wealth attracted to that spot, and persons were frequently crushed or stifled to death. "Mississippi! — Who wants any Mississippi?" — was bawled out in every lane and by‑lane, and every nook and corner of Paris echoed with the word, "Mississippi!"
Immense fortunes were lost or acquired in a few weeks. By stock-jobbing, obscure individuals were suddenly raised from the sewers of poverty to the gilded rooms of princely splendor. Most amusing anecdotes might be told of persons thus stumbling by chance into affluence; and heart-rending stories might be related of such as, from the possession of every luxury, were precipitated into the depths of absolute destitution; while those who had become spontaneously rich, being made giddy with their unexpected acquisitions, launched into such profusions and follies that their return to poverty was as rapid as their accession to wealth, through which it might be said they had only passed with the velocity of steam locomotion. He who could write in all its details the history of that Mississippi bubble, so fatal in its short-lived duration, would give to the world the most instructive composition, made up of the most amusing, ludicrous, monstrous and horrible elements that were ever jumbled together.
The distribution of property underwent more than one grotesque change. The tenants of the parlor or saloon went up to the garret, and the natives of the garret tumbled down into the saloon. Footmen changed p215 places with their masters, and the outside of carriages happened to become the inside. Law's coachman made such a large fortune that he set up an equipage of his own. Cookmaids and waiting-women appeared at the opera, bedizened in finery like the Queen of Sheba. A baker's son, who used to carry his father's loaves in a basket to his customers, was, by a sudden turn of the wheel of fortune, enabled to purchase plate to the amount of four hundred thousand livres, which he sent to his wife, with the recommendation of having it properly set out for supper, and with the strict injunction of putting in the largest and finest dish his favorite stew of onions and hog's feet. The Marquis d'Oyse, of the family of the Dukes of Villars Brancas, signed a contract of marriage, although he was at the time thirty-three years of age, with the daughter, three years old, of a man named André, who had won millions at the Mississippi lottery. The conditions of the marriage were, that it should take place when the girl should reach her twelfth year, and that, in the mean time, the marquis was to receive three hundred thousand livres in cash, twenty thousand livres every year until the day of the wedding, when several millions would be paid to the husband by the father of the bride. All these meteors, who were thus blazing in their newly-acquired splendor, were called "Mississippians," on account of the source of their fortune.
Let us now turn from the system, to its inventor — to John Law, who, under such circumstances operating in his favor, was adored by the people; and as usual, they were few indeed who refrained from worshiping the idol of the hour, and from burning incense at his shrine. He was a favorite with the Duke of Orleans, Regent of France, of whom he was known to possess the ear; and on his abjuring in the hands of Abbé Tencin, since p216 a cardinal, the Protestant religion, which was the only obstacle to his advancement to the highest offices of the state, he was appointed, on the 5th of January, 1720 comptroller-general of the finances of the kingdom. To so eminent a personage, England sent, of course, a free and absolute pardon for the murder of Wilson; and Edinburgh, proud of having given him birth, tendered him the freedom of the city in a gold box. Poets, tuning their lyres to sing his apotheosis, declared him to be the Magnus Apollo of the age, and the Academy of Sciences elected him one of its honorary members. It is impossible not to pay a tribute of admiration to the talents of that low-born adventurer, who, in less than four years, by his own unassisted exertions, and even in despite of the most strenuous opposition from formidable adversaries, rose from a suspicious position in private life, to be one of the ministers of one of the most powerful and enlightened nations of the world. The Duke of St. Simon, who knew him well, and who writes of him with partiality in his celebrated memoirs, says, that Law had a strong Scotch accent, but that although there was much English in his French, he was extremely persuasive, and that he had the peculiar tact, by assuming an air of modest diffidence, to throw off their guard those he wished to seduce. With prodigious powers of insinuation and persuasion he must indeed have been gifted, to have operated all the wonders we have seen!
Law, who had the pretension of enriching every body, did not, as it is very natural to suppose, forget his own pecuniary interest, and had purchased no less than fourteen of the most magnificent estates of France with titles annexed to them, and among which was the Marquisate of Rosny; that domain had been owned, and its splendid castle had been occupied as a favorite residence p217 by the illustrious friend and minister of Henry the IVth, the great Sully, who, before he was created duke of that name, had borne the title of Marquis of Rosny. But Law had attained his highest degree of prosperity, and the wind was already blowing which was to prostrate him to the ground from his towering altitude.
The year 1720, which saw him at the zenith of his prosperity, witnessed also his rapid declension, and his ultimate fall into the abyss of adversity, where he was forever lost. But how dazzling his position was on the 5th day of that year, 1720, when he was appointed comptroller-general of the finances of the kingdom! At that time, he was literally besieged in his splendid palace by a host of applicants and supplicants of every description. His friendship was courted with cringing eagerness by princes, dukes, peers of the realm, marshals and prelates, who reverentially bowed, and bent a supple knee to the upstart, in the mean hope of securing his patronage. Nobles crowded his ante-chambers in democratic conjunction with a motley crew of people of every hue and feather. It was thought to be a lucky accident or a high honor to attract even his passing notice, and ladies of the most exalted rank were not ashamed to ply meretricious smiles to win his favor.
With no very great stretch of the imagination, we may easily conceive the occurrence of such a scene as the following: far from the bustle of the street, and from the crowd which encumbers his apartments of reception, in a retired but richly and tastefully decorated room of his princely residence, John Law is taking his luncheon in the sole company of his son, his daughter, and his pretended wife, who, says the Duke of Saint Simon, was a high-born English lady. Enamored of Law, she had left her family and dignified position in p218 society, to follow him. She was very haughty, and the superciliousness of her manners was such, that it frequently became impertinent. She rarely paid visits except to the chosen few; she received homages as her due, paid none, and exercised in her house a despotic authority. Her well-shaped person looked noble, and she would have been thought handsome, if a horrid stain of the color of red wine had not covered half of her face and one eye. It is well known that Law always treated her with the utmost respect and tenderness.
Sitting in front of her at a table adorned with exquisitely carved gold and silver implements, Law seemed to be enjoying with peculiar relish the quiet atmosphere of his family circle. Now and then his confidential groom of the bed-chamber glided in, and whispered into his ear the arrival of some distinguished personage who had come to swell the retinue that filled his apartments, and anxiously expected his appearance. At each announcement of a high-sounding name, of a duke, a marshal, a great dignitary of the church, a smile of triumph would flit across his face, and he would cast a look of exultation at his wife, whose natural pride appeared to be intensely alive to the enjoyment which was administered to it by her husband. But Law, keeping his self-composure, would answer, with the utmost unconcern, and without hurrying his meal, whenever a new name was brought in to him: "Well! well" let him wait!" On a sudden, the servant entered again, but not with the same measured step, and cried out with a voice which emotion raised far beyond its usual key: "My lord, his highness the Prince of Conti." Law jumped up as if the irresistible action of a spring in his seat had forced him into his erect attitude, his face became flushed, and his limbs trembled. "Ha!" exclaimed p219 he, "a prince of the royal blood under my roof!" But a thought flashed through his brain, he knit his brows, compressed his lips, looked at his wife with an expression of intense pride, and resuming his chair, composedly turned to his servant, and with the same tone of voice with which he had answered every other call, he said: "Let him wait." Here is something to moralize upon, if moralizing was not so flat, stale, and unprofitable. A Bourbon, the descendant of a long line of kings, to be kept waiting in the ante-chambers of the son of a Scotch goldsmith! A prince of the royal blood of France to dance attendance on a low adventurer, an exiled outlaw, who had successively and collectively been called the gambler, the swindler, the profligate, the bankrupt, the adulterer, the murderer, the apostate. O the power of gold! Can we not divine the feeling that made Law's blood thrill with excitement! Ours must be one of unmitigated contempt.
Now the scene has shifted, and John Law is rusticating at his castle of Rosny, the once proud seat of Sully, in Normandy. Reclining in a gothic, richly carved chair, with a high back still retaining, chiseled in its oak, the coat-of‑arms of Sully, and tapering into a point surmounted by a ducal crown, — in the very chair of state of that haughty feudal baron, and with his feet resting on the lower and more modest chair of the Duchess of Sully, for in those days Sully's wife would not have dared to occupy a seat of equal dignity with that of her lord, — our great financier, John Law, before indulging in his nightly repose, is reckoning up in his mind his acquired wealth, and framing new plans still to increase its already enormous bulk. It is midnight — and the solemn hour of twelve strikes at the big tower's clock! Hist! — a slow, solemn step is heard — it comes from the stair running up the turret which p220 opens into Law's room. What can it be? The light turns blue on his table: — Law's soul is suddenly awed with the consciousness that an unnatural atmosphere is gathering round him. His hair stands erect: a cold chill shoots through his body, and his eyes involuntarily turn to that iron door which the strange visitor is gradually approaching. O wonder! There is no using of the key — no unbarring — and yet the door grates on its rusty hinges — and opens wide. God! can it be true? — can such things be?
It is Sully himself, with his so well-known stern face, and with the same antiquated dress in which he was clad, when in the latter part of his life, being summoned from his retirement to the court of Louis the XIIIth, to give advice on matters of importance, and his unfashionable appearance having provoked a laugh from those butterfly courtiers who surrounded the young king, he frowned them down with an air of inexpressible majesty and contempt, and then, looking at the crowned son of his old friend, Henry the IVth:— "Sire," said he, "whenever the king, your respected father, sent for me, he used to dismiss from his presence all the buffoons, masqueraders and jackanapes of the palace." — It is the same Sully, to whom the king having exhibited a paper which, to the disgrace of royalty, he had signed in a moment of weakness, seized it, tore it to pieces, and on the king having exclaimed: "Are you mad, Sully!" answered, "Would to God that I were the only madman in your kingdom!" — It is he, whose sense of his feudal and personal dignity was such, that he never would descend to his terraced garden, even to indulge in an early morning walk, without having before and behind him a file of halberdiers escorting him in state. A bold man John Law was. But when this apparition met his sight, drops of cold sweat pearled down his forehead, his voice stuck in his throat, and terror fettered p221 him to his seat, as if his limbs had been bound with chains of adamant. Indeed, a stouter heart than his would have been frozen by the gaze which Sully bent upon him, a gaze in which were so vividly expressed intense, indignant surprise at the witnessed profanation, and the scowling threat of condign punishment. Ay, a bolder man than John Law would have sunk to the ground when, with rapid strides, Sully advanced toward him, and lifting up the hunting whip which his hand tightly grasped, exclaimed, "Dog of a stock-jobber! vile Scotch hound, darest thou pollute —" A shriek! — a fearful shriek was heard — and John Law shook off his agonizing dream. Yea — it was only a dream. But some dreams are prophetic, and these are the scenes in which the imagination of the historian may be permitted to indulge, to give more graphic force to the truths of his narrative.
It must not be supposed that Law had carried on all his projects so far, without encountering incessant opposition. Among his adversaries the parliament of Paris had been the most redoubtable, and that powerful body had been always on the watch to seize a favorable opportunity to crush Law and his system. That opportunity was soon to present itself. Undermined by the intrigues of his other colleagues in the ministry, carried away by the innate imperfections of his system farther than he had intended, terrified at the mighty evolutions of the tremendous engine he had set at work, and could no longer control or stop, the victim of a combination of envy, apprehension, ignorance and avarice, which interfered with his designs, and made him pay too dear for protection or assistance, Law felt that the moment of his fall was approaching, and saw with terror the threatening oscillations of the overgrown fabric he had reared. He tried to conceal his embarrassments by inducing the company p222 to declare that they had such a command of funds as to be able to propose lending any sum on proper security at two per cent. But in vain did they put on this show of confidence in their own resources:— the smiling mask deceived nobody. There were symptoms which too plainly denoted approaching dissolution and death. Among those dark spots was the number of bank notes which had been manufactured, and which, on the 1st of May, 1720, exceeded 2600 millions of livres, while the whole specie in the kingdom amounted only to 1300 millions.
Then happened what has been frequently seen since: the superabundance of paper money produced a scarcity of specie. It became evident to the most obtuse that those bank notes had no representative, and that sooner or later they would be no more than worthless rags. As soon as that discovery was made, every one hastened to convert his shares or bank notes into gold or silver, and to realize the fortune he had acquired. The most keen-sighted, or the most prudent, not only exchanged their notes for specie, but sent it out of France; and it is calculated that in this way the kingdom was drained of 500 millions of livres. To avert the danger with which his system was threatened, Law, in less than eight months, promulgated thirty-three edicts to fix the value of gold and silver, and to limit the amount of gold and silver which might be converted into plate and jewelry. No payment in specie could be made except for small sums: the standard of coin was kept in the most bewildering state of fluctuation, while the value of bank notes was decreed to be invariable. Rents, taxes, and customs, were made payable in paper only:— and as a climax to these high-handed measures, individuals as well as secular or religious communities were prohibited, under very severe penalties, from having p223 in their possession more than 500 livres in specie. This ordinance established the most intolerable inquisition, and gave rise to the most vexatious researches on the part of the police. The house of no citizen was free from the visits of the agents of power, and every man trembled to see denunciation lurking by his fireside, and to harbor treason by the very altars of his household gods.
The alarm of the public mind became such, that it was thought necessary to equalize the proportion between the bank notes and the coin; and on the 21st of May, 1720, an edict was issued, which, in violation of the pledge of the state, and as a beginning of bankruptcy, reduced the value of the company's bank notes to one half, and cut down the shares from 10,000, and even 20,000, which was their highest ascent, to 5000 livres. The effect of this edict was instantaneous and overwhelming. At once, all confidence was lost in the bank notes:— general consternation prevailed: and no one would have given twenty cents in hard coin for millions in bank paper. There was a rush on the bank for payment, and one will easily form a conception of the fury, despair and distress of the people, when he is informed that on the stopping of payment by the bank, there was paper in circulation amounting to 2,235,085,590 livres. The whole of it was suddenly reduced to zero. In the whole of France there was but one howl of malediction, and guards had to be given to Law, who had become an object of popular abhorrence. Even the life of the Regent himself was put in jeopardy, and it became necessary to station troops in different parts of Paris, where seditions and inflammatory libels had been posted up and circulated, to increase the confusion and tumultuous disorder which reigned everywhere. It p224 was apparent that France had been transformed into a volcano, from which the slightest cause would have produced an eruption.
With regard to Louisiana, there had been also a great revolution in the public estimate of her merits. She was no longer described as the land of promise, but a terrestrial representation of Pandemonium. The whole country was nothing else, it was said, but a vile compound of marshes, lagoons, swamps, bayous, fens, bogs, endless prairies, inextricable and gloomy forests, peopled with every monster of the natural and of the mythological world. The Mississippi rolled onward a muddy and thick substance, which hardly deserved the name of water, and which was alive with every insect and every reptile. Enormous trunks, branches and fragments of trees were swept down by the velocity of the current, and in such quantity as almost to bridge over the bed of the river, and they prevented communication from one bank to the other, by crushing every bark or canoe that attempted the passage. At one epoch of the year, the whole country was overflowed by that mighty river, and then, all the natives betook themselves to the tops of trees, where they roosted and lived like monkeys, and jumped from tree to tree in search of food, or they retired to artificial hills of shells, piled up by preceding generations, where they starved, or fed as they could by fishing excursions.
In many of its parts, the country was nothing but a thin coat, •one foot thick, of alluvial soil, kept together on the surface of the water by the intermingled teguments of bind-weeds and the roots of other plants, so that if one walked on this crust, he made it, by the pressure of the weight of his body, heave up around him, in imitation of the waves of the sea, and great was the danger of sinking through this weak texture. p225 Temptingly looking fruits and berries invited the taste, it is true, but they were all poisonous. Such portion of the colony as was not the production of the Mississippi, and therefore a mere deposit of mud, was the creation of the sea, and consisted in heaps of sand. Hence it was evident, that the country was neither fit for the purposes of commerce nor for those of agriculture, and could not be destined by the Creator for the habitation of civilized man. The sun was so intensely hot, that at noon it could strike a man dead as if with a pistol shot:— it was called a stroke of the sun. Its fiery breath drew from the bogs, fens, and marshes the most pestilential vapors, engendering disease and death. The climate was so damp, that in less than a week a bar of iron would be coated over with rust and eaten up by its corroding tooth. The four seasons of the year would meet in one single day, and a shivering morning was not unfrequently succeeded by a sultry evening. The ear was, by day and by night, assailed by the howls of wolves, and by the croakings of frogs so big that they swallowed children, and could bellow as loud as bulls. Sleep, sweet sleep, nature's balmy restorer, was disturbed, if not altogether made impossible, by the buzº and stings of myriads of mosquitoes, which thickened the atmosphere and incorporated themselves with the very air which the lungs inhaled.
In such a country, the European race of men rapidly degenerated, and in less than three generations was reduced from the best-proportioned size to the dwarfish dimensions of misshapen pigmies. As soon as the emigrant landed, he was seized with disease, and if he recovered, the rosy hue of health had forever fled from his cheeks:— his wrinkled and sallow skin hung loosely on his bones, from which the flesh had almost entirely departed: — his system could never be braced up again: p226 and he dragged on a miserable, sickly existence, which fortunately was not of long duration. In such a climate, old age was entirely unknown, and the statistical average of life did not exceed ten years. There, man lost the energies both of his body and mind, and through the enervating and baleful influence of the atmosphere, soon became stultified into an indolent idiot. Even the brutish creation did not escape the inflictions to which humanity was subject, and experienced the same rapid transformations. Thus, in a short time, horses were reduced to the size of sheep, cattle to that of rabbits, hogs gradually shrunk up so as to be no bigger than rats, and fowls dwindled into the diminished proportions of sparrows. As to the natives, they were cannibals, who possessed all the malignity and magical arts of demons, and waged incessant war against the emigrants, whose flesh they devoured with peculiar relish. The delineation of the features of Louisiana was very different from those of the first portrait, so many copies of which had been industriously circulated through France. It had been Hyperion; now it was a Satyr.
It is easy to conceive the startling effects produced on the minds of a people already in a paroxysm of consternation, by such malicious misrepresentations, which the enemies of Law took care to scatter far and wide. Thus, the tide of emigration which was pouring onward rolled back, and the prospect of establishing a powerful colony in Louisiana, which, at first, had appeared so feasible, and loomed out to the imagination of the speculator in such vivid colors, and with such fair proportions, was nipped in the bud, and was looked upon as an impossibility. Under the exaggerated and gloomy apprehensions of the moment, no actual tender of money, and no promises of future reward, could have tempted p227 any body to embark for Louisiana. So universal was the terror inspired by the name of the Mississippi, that (it is a well-known fact) it became even a bugbear of the nursery, and that for half a century after the explosion of Law's great Mississippi scheme, when French children were unruly and unmanageable, and when all threats had proved ineffectual, the mother would, in the last resort, lift up her finger impressively, and in a whispering tone, as if afraid speaking too loud of something so horrible, would say with a shudder, and with pale lips to her rebellious progeny: "Hush! or I will send you to the Mississippi!" The child looked imploringly into his mother's face, his passion vanished, his cries and sobs were stifled, and under the soft kisses of maternal affection, coupled with the assurance that he never would be sent to the Mississippi, he fell into gentle and undisturbed sleep.
However, the Western or Mississippi Company having contracted the obligation to colonize Louisiana, and transport thither, within a fixed time, a certain number of emigrants, found itself under the necessity, in order to comply with the terms of its contract, to have recourse to the most iniquitous and unlawful means. As it was indispensable that there should be emigration — when it ceased to be voluntary, it was necessary that it should be forced. Thus service was resorted to, and throughout France agents were dispatched to kidnap all vagrants, beggars, gipsies, or people of the like description, and women of bad repute. Unfortunately, the power given by the government to these agents of the company was abused in the most infamous manner. It became in their hands an engine of peculation, oppression, and corruption. It is incredible what a number of respectable people of both sexes were put, through bribery, in the hands of these p228 satellites of an arbitrary government, to gratify private malice and the dark passions or interested views of men in power. A purse of gold slipped into think, and a whisper in the ear, went a great way to get rid of obnoxious persons, and many a fearful tale of revenge, of hatred, or of cupidity, might be told of persons who were unsuspectedly seized and carried away to the banks of the Mississippi, before their voices could be heard when crying for justice, or for protection. The dangerous rival, the hated wife, or troublesome husband, the importuning creditor, the prodigal son, or the too long-lived father, the one who happened to be an obstacle to an expected inheritance, or crossed the path of the wealthy or of the powerful, became the victims of their position, and were soon hurried away with the promiscuous herd of thieves, prostitutes, vagabonds, and all sorts of wretches of bad fame who had been swept together, to be transported to Louisiana.
Guarded by a merciless soldiery, they, on their way to sea-ports, crowded the public roads of France like droves of cattle, and as they were hardly furnished with means of subsistence or with clothing by their heartless conductors, who speculated on the food and other supplies with which they were bound to provide their prisoners, they died in large numbers, and their unburied corpses, rotting above ground, struck with terror the inhabitants of the districts through which the woe-begone caravan had passed. At night, they were locked up in barns, when any could be found, and if not, they were forced, the better to prevent escape, to lie down in heaps at the bottom of ditches and holes, and sentinels were put round to watch over them. Hunger and cold pinched the miserable creatures, and their haggard looks, emaciated bodies, and loud wailings, carried desolation everywhere. Such sights, added to p229 the horrifying descriptions which were given of Louisiana, made its name more terrific to the minds of the people of France than that of the celebrated Bastile and its dark dungeons. Dull indeed must be the imagination of the novelist, who, out of these strictly historical facts, could not extract the most romantic and heart-rending tales!
Law was considered as the author of all these cruelties and misfortunes, and he became still more odious to the people. The parliament of Paris thought that the moment was come at last to pounce upon Law; and to gratify their long-cherished resentment, he was summoned to appear in person before that high tribunal, to answer for his misdeeds and for his violations of the laws of the kingdom. On his refusal or neglect to do so, the parliament ordered him to be arrested, and had determined, on his being brought to the palace where they sat, to close their doors; and in order to prevent the expected interference of the Regent, their intention was to try summarily the hated foreigner, and to hang him in their court-yard. Thus, if the Regent, as it was anticipated, sent troops to batter down the gates of the parliament-house, to save his favorite, they would arrive too late, and would find there nothing but a gallows and a corpse. Aware of this plan, Law left his residence and fled to the Regent's palace, which was the only place where he felt himself secure against the pursuit of his enemies. There he cast himself at the feet of his august protector, and bathed his hands with tears. What a change!
"This is the state of man: to‑day he puts forth
p230 The Regent gave to Law assurance of his protection and vouched for his life; but this was all he could do. He had to bow to the force of public opinion, and to bend to the storm which menaced even his royal person. It was evident that Law could no longer stay in France. In the mean time, the Regent, irritated at the presumption of the parliament, exiled that body to Pontoise; but public indignation still gathering fresh fuel from that very circumstance, the Duke of Orleans provided Law, who resigned the office of comptroller-general, with the means of escaping out of the kingdom. On the 22d of December, 1720, Law arrived at Brussels, where he waited for some time in the vain expectation of being recalled. Far from it, he discovered, to his dismay, that when a man is sliding down the hill of prosperity, his best friends, instead of endeavoring to arrest his fall, will not unfrequently help him down with a kick. Thus, the Great Western or Mississippi Company, to which he had stood sponsor or godfather, lifted up a parricidal hand against him; and under the allegation that his accounts had not been faithfully kept and rendered, had proceeded to seize all his property, and had thereby deprived him of all means of subsistence. He did not lose however the favor of the Regent, who appointed him minister of France at the court of Bavaria, where he resided until the death of that prince. Then he traveled through many parts of Europe, but found everywhere that dame Fortune was tired of smiling upon him. He became but too sensible that he was a discarded lover, and that her favors were bestowed on some other favorite.
In October, 1721, he returned to England, and at first was received with distinction by persons of high rank: he was even presented to George the Ist. It had been shrewdly suspected that he had retained a p231 considerable portion of his enormous wealth, of which it was presumed that he had been prudent enough, in his palmy days, to send a valuable fraction out of France. But when it was discovered that he was reduced to beggary, people railed at his supreme want of discretion at not providing better for himself, and they felt indignant at the presumptuous cheat, who had been wheedling himself into their society under the false impression that he was rich. As soon as it was ascertained that he was poor, it followed of course that he was nobody, and no longer to be countenanced or noticed. Out of an innumerable host of friends, the Countess of Suffolk was the only one that remained true to him. Let it stand on record in justice to her and for the honor of woman! This indeed was another of those but too striking instances of the mutability of fortune and of the instability of friendship.
In 1722, John Law turned his back upon England for the last time, and returning to the Continent, retired to Venice, where he lived in obscurity, and where he died on the 21st of March, 1729, in a state of indigence, and in the fifty-eighth year of his age. He had lost his wife and his only son, and there remained with him to solace his last moments but one faithful heart, a sweet Antigone, who closed his eyelids. That was his daughter. She afterward married Lord Wallingford in England. A branch of the family of Law has preserved to this day in France a very honorable position in society. A brother whom he left in that kingdom when he fled from it, was taken under the special protection of the Duchess of Bourbon. Through her favor, two of his sons found employment, in 1741, in the service of the East India Company, and greatly distinguished themselves. The eldest one, Law de Lauriston, rose to the rank of major-general, and to be governor-general p232 of the French possessions in India. He left several sons; two perished in the unfortunate expedition of La Peyrouse, and one of them lived to be known under the reign of Louis the XVIIIth, as Marquis de Lauriston, a lieutenant-general and a peer of France.
We have followed Law through all the phases of his eventful career, until, crossing with him the Bridge of Sighs, we have left him dying in Venice, "that sea Cybele with her tiara of towers — the revel of the earth — the masque of Italy." A fit tomb for such a man!c Now that the last act of this varied drama has been played, let the curtain drop, leaving to the judgment of impartial posterity the memory of John Law of Edinburgh.
b Taking Gayarré's conversion and in turn extrapolating the amount to the present day (2006), this is about $400,000 for a square league. Since the league was about 2.25 kilometers, just under 1.5 miles (and thus a square league was about 500 hectares or 1250 acres) the price paid by these believers in advertising amounted to $800/hectare or $320/acre in 2006 dollars. Land around Baton Rouge was an example easy to find online: current prices run from $500 to $3700 an acre — so the investment would have been alright even at those worst-case prices. Assuming a purchase price at the 1720 equivalent of $320/acre and a midrange sale price at $2000/acre today, the annualized real rate of return would have been 0.64%: not great, and far outperformed by most other investments, but safe. Anyone who would have paid less than the exorbitant and presumably maximum recorded price given by Gayarré would have done correspondingly better, of course.
c John Law is buried in Venice, in the church of S. Gemignano.
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