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Radical Translations

The age of Revolution created a dynamic which is still present today: the financial world and the sphere of politics became strongly intermingled, and each side made efforts to overpower the other.

During the revolutionary period the relation between finance and politics became one of the most heated and controversial arguments of debate. The eighteenth-century appears as a turning point in the complex dialogue between financial and political actors. This book offers a comprehensive picture of this confrontation through the study of one set of individuals in particular: bankers.

Following the hectic pace of financial speculations, spy missions and parliamentary lobbying this book recounts the stories of several merchants and bankers active in Amsterdam, Paris and London during the French revolution and the Napoleonic period.

Between long period of war and political instability bankers strove to profit from opportunities opened by the creation of new political entities, such as the US republic or the French republic, as well as dealing with old powers like the British or the Austrian empires. The banker’s tale is a history not only of the continuity of the world of ancien régime into the Age of democratic revolution. At the end of the revolutionary period, bankers like Baring and Rothschild did not eschew traditional trading activities, but their specialization in international finance brought them to play a crucial role in shaping the political future of the European concert of powers.

At first sight this evolution of the role of bankers seems to have few elements of contact with the circulation and translation of radical texts. However this impression would be misleading: one of the most acute observers of the changing role of bankers and the great importance of debt in the life of nations was Thomas Paine. In 1796 Paine published The decline and fall of the English system of Finance, which rapidly was translated in French as well as in Italian. The work was not flawless and its thesis of a rapid decline of the British funding system due to the explosion of the war was not accurate. However Paine greatly contributed to the “politicization of finance” as a process where finance became another battlefield in the global challenge between France and Britain. Paine’s text and its numerous translations served to break down English credit who was held in high esteem across Europe. In other words Paine weaponised his text against the British funding system who guaranteed the growing national debt due to the British direct involvement in the coalition of powers against the French republic.

After the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis and the 2012 Euro crisis debates revolved around regulation and attempts to curb financial greed. This book traces the confrontation between financial and political actors back to its modern roots: no easy solutions are in sight but knowing the historical starting point of this challenging confrontation can provide original insight into the fragile balance between banking and politics.

Niccolò Valmori, Banking and politics in the age of democratic revolution Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2023)