Book review: John Law: A Scottish Adventurer Of The Eighteenth Century, by James Buchan

John Law is an enigmatic figure. Depending on whom you read he is either a right chancer or a brilliant economist. In this excellent new biography by James Buchan '“ who has already written a superb book on the nature of money, Frozen Music '“ we finally get a life story that is not just complicated in itself, but complicated in its approach to the subject in hand.

James Buchan PIC: Jane Hobson/REX/Shutterstock

So: the bare bones version. Law was born in 1671 in Fife and was apprenticed to his father, who was a goldsmith. Having gold let his father also be a banker. Law’s relationship with his mother, as Buchan reveals, was problematic; which might explain why he went south to London. There he was somewhat of a dandy, a gambler and a murderer. Escaping prison and the noose he went to the Continent, where, through charm and brilliance, he eventually became the Controller General of Finances for France during the Regency of the Duc d’Orléans. It allowed him to implement a plan he had published for Scotland – Money And Trade Considered: With A Proposal For Supplying The Nation With Money. France would have paper money rather than gold and silver coin. It would also have a central bank. What began as an astonishing success story ended in a disaster – although French trading ships had increased from six to 300 in two years, the shares in his Mississippi Company soared and then fell. The fancy-dancy places he had made for his bank were stampeded by irate investors, and he fled. The man once described by Lord Stair, the ambassador, as “someone you must consider the First Minister of France” and Chandos as a person who had control of “all the wealth of France”, ended up impoverished in Venice, dying at 57.

Law is a topic for a biographer that is as intriguing as it is infuriating. Buchan begins his book with a cadenza: Law was also the marquis d’Effiat, Cherleval and Toucy, Comte de Tancraville and Valençy, chamberlain and hereditary constable of Normandy, Baron de La Rivière, seigneur de Gerponville, Saint-Suplix, Roissy, Orcher and Guermantes (a nice wink at Proust, elaborated in the book), and proprietor of Arkansas, also de Ferry, Dujardin, Hamden, Annington, Wilmot, Hamilton, Gardiner, and in the Jacobite cipher 888.75.1804. He was also Lawe, Laws, Las, Lass, Lavv, Laur, Lau, Laus, Lauu and Labuu. To be so famous and so slippery in terms of identity is something of an achievement.

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The story begins and ends, in ways, with games of chance. There are points where one imagines Law as a cross between the characters played by Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. On one side, it seems that Law had an exceptional ability at arithmetical calculation. His days on the gaming tables allowed him to construct series of possibilities that meant he could not lose (such as throwing six sixes on a dice, with a wager on each error). At other times he seems like a sleekit, smarmy man with an eye for opportunity and flattery.

The best parts of Buchan’s book are towards the end, where Law is now adrift, shunned, alone and back at the tables. These show how Buchan is as much a novelist as a non-fiction writer. Personally, I would have liked a little more on the wider picture than on the French economy which he saved and wrecked. It is a melancholy and lonely ending. Law was always a bit of a cad rather than a rake, so the account of this part of his life is strangely moving.

The paper money controversy would rumble on after Law. In Part II of Goethe’s Faust, the sorcerer creates bank notes based on possible future mineral deposits: a bet against the future. Sir Walter Scott wrote a defence of notes – hence his appearance on them – because Scotland simply did not have enough specie (gold, silver, copper) to run a feasible economy then. Other similar bubbles – the Darien Adventure, the Tulip Fever, the South Sea Bubble, might have been mentioned in more detail to put the story in context.

Law was ahead of his time in many ways in seeing money not as a thing you simply possessed but as a means of exchange. The first issue of the Edinburgh Review had an article by Francis Horner lauding paper money as a sign of civilisation: it showed you trusted your neighbour. If you doubted his vision, just turn up at your local bank and ask them to make good on the “promise to pay the bearer on demand” written on the note. One wonders what Law would have made of contactless payment, whereby money becomes invisible.

Buchan’s book is both scrupulously researched and humanely curious. He wonders the whole time about what the documents from various archives actually tell us about Law. That is gracious as well as rigorous. Given it also has Jacobite politics, elopements, prison breaks and court scandal even a reader who might sigh at the thought of a book on “the dismal science” will find much to savour.

Book review: John Law: A Scottish Adventurer Of The Eighteenth Century, by James Buchan, MacLehose Press, £30