Millionaire, by Janet Gleeson: A Review

The book by Janet Gleeson called Millionaire: The Philanderer, Gambler, and Duelist who Invented Modern France, is fascinating. It’s about the famous John Law who is referenced in a lot of movies, though it seems that, as per usual, Hollywood gets their history wrong.

According to the book, John Law had a very interesting and historically impactful life. Due to being raised in a wealthy family in the late 17th century, his earlier adulthood was largely spent being a “dandy” and gambler. Dandy apparently means that he was basically a rich man who went around town flaunting his wealth and pursuing high fashion. Law had a very intelligent mathematical brain. This isn’t surprising since he was raised by bankers, but he took knowledge of numbers to another level. Like many famous and infamous gamblers, he sometimes lost a lot of money, but he often made significant profits. There were times when he lost nearly unimaginable sums of money, but overall, he was so good at winning that he gained national interest. His skills in math and probability helped him with this.

In some ways, John Law was reckless, and a bit of a spoiled rich kid, which fits the stereotype of many obsessive gamblers. He did things like participate in sword duels for the affection of women, which appears to have been common in this time period. The craziest thing he did was murder a man, and he even got away with it because he fled the country in which it happened before he could be prosecuted. He was then extradited back to France. It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems to my amateur eyes that it had little effect on his reputation.

Regardless of what you might think of him, Law had a major impact on the entire field of economics. He was the first person to suggest paper money, and have it implemented into the French economic system, along with other physical representations of wealth such as gold. This was based on the idea of credit and interest, which are ubiquitous in banking today. However, when this was going on, in the early 1700s, these ideas were virtually unheard of, if not at least only minimally implemented. Law was heavily ridiculed for these, at the time, insane ideas.

But John Law made so much money from gambling, and particularly, financial speculation using his economic theories, that a new word was coined for him. “Millionaire” was first used to describe John Law because he made an amount of money so incredible that it was virtually unheard of at the time, at least for those who were not monarchs. He was, in some ways, the first millionaire. His prodigious success made the French banking system take his ideas much more seriously, to the point where he essentially invented the modern, centralized economic system in France.

Law was put in charge of the French banking system for a number of years, but eventually, the success of his speculation led to so many copiers that it corrupted national finance. So many speculators flooded the market that at the worst, the French dollar value, or livre, fell by 73% in just one year. Law’s response to the chaos was fleeing the country. He tried his hand at gambling and speculating in other countries, but never again reached his former fame and wealth. He died from pneumonia in Venice, as a poor person. Though John Law’s influence on economics is still present across the world today, his meteoric rise to wealth and fame plummeted him from the very top, to rock bottom.

 

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