Napoleon’s banker, Jacques Laffitte
Jacques Laffitte is Napoleon’s French banker in Napoleon in America. He should not be confused with Jean Laffite, the pirate who rescues Napoleon from St. Helena in the novel. A financier and politician who rose from poverty to become one of France’s richest citizens, Jacques Laffitte is considered one of the creators of modern public credit in France. He also opened the road for French international investment banking. Napoleon trusted Laffitte’s ability with money, as well as his integrity, though Laffitte’s leanings were more republican than imperial. A supporter of the 1830 July Revolution, Laffitte ran into trouble when Louis-Philippe ascended the throne.
From rags to riches
Jacques Laffitte was born in Bayonne, France, on October 24, 1767, one of ten children of a poor carpenter. With little formal education, Laffitte began working as his father’s apprentice. He was subsequently employed as a clerk by a Bayonne notary, and then by a Bayonne merchant who had an interest in banking and insurance. On the latter’s recommendation, Laffitte obtained in 1787 a position as a clerk in the banking house of Perrégaux in Paris.
In May 1801 Laffitte married Marine Françoise Laeut, the daughter of a merchant and ship’s captain. They had one daughter, Albine, born on May 12, 1805. She later married the Prince of Moskowa, the eldest son of Napoleon’s Marshal Ney. In the realm of interesting coincidences, Laffitte’s younger brother Jean Baptiste in 1800 married Antoinette Lefebvre-Desnouettes, the sister of Napoleonic General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, who also appears in Napoleon in America.
Jacques Laffitte proved to have an aptitude for banking and rose to become a partner in his firm. When Perrégaux died in 1808, Laffitte succeeded him as head of the business. The bank of Perrégaux, Laffitte et Cie., already one of the most prominent in Europe, became the bank of J. Laffitte et Cie.
In 1809 Laffitte became regent of the Bank of France and, in 1814, its governor. Before leaving France after his 1815 abdication, Napoleon left the remnants of his fortune – almost six million francs – in Laffitte’s hands. He supposedly said to the banker,
I know you did not like my government, but I know you are an honest man. (1)
Though Laffitte looked after Napoleon’s fortune during the Emperor’s exile on St. Helena, he was not the firmest supporter of Napoleon’s regime. The Bourbons happily made use of Laffitte’s services. It was clear to Laffitte that the restoration of France’s public credit after the Napoleonic Wars depended on a favourable attitude on the part of foreign investors and speculators. He became involved in floating securities to pay off the French debts to the allies. He also lent the French treasury 10 million francs from his own funds.
In 1816 Laffitte was elected as a member of the Chamber of Deputies for the Seine. Though Laffitte was associated with the more liberal members of the Chamber, King Louis XVIII appointed him to his finance commission. In 1819, however, as a result of his vigorous defence of liberty of the press and the electoral law of 1817, Laffitte lost his position as governor of the Bank of France.
During this decade Laffitte entered into investment banking. In 1817 and 1818 he became the leading ally and subcontractor of Barings of London and Hope & Co. of Amsterdam. He experienced extraordinary success and accumulated one of the largest fortunes in France, estimated at between 25 and 30 million francs. In 1818 he purchased the magnificent château of Maisons-sur-Seine. Vincent Nolte describes a visit there in 1822:
M. Lafitte, as usual, led the conversation…he spoke out whatever came into his head, interrupting others, and starting countless topics that had nothing to do with the matter in hand. On reaching the drawing rooms we found Madame Lafitte, with her only daughter, now the Princess de la Moskowa, and several gentlemen, most of them opposition deputies in the chamber, among them M. Cassimir Perrier and M. Grammont…. M. Lafitte, whose talkativeness had yet found no obstacle, rattled away. He told a great deal about the ‘hundred days’ and said he had never admired Napoleon; and that during the time when he was daily sent for and consulted by the emperor, he had learned to know him well, and had discovered that he possessed the art of making himself popular in the highest degree. (2)
The Russian ambassador to France, Count Pozzo di Borgo, described Laffitte as “a vain man, unruly and surrounded by what is most suspicious in Paris, but whom it would be difficult to exclude, even if the court and the government exerted themselves to try.” (3)
Revolution and embarrassment
After the death of Louis XVIII in 1824, Jacques Laffitte became increasingly impatient with the reactionary policies of his successor, Charles X. Laffitte financed liberal publications that encouraged revolt. When this came to fruition in the July 1830 revolution in Paris, he was one of the deputies sent to the Tuileries to negotiate with the king’s government. He was also a member of the group that offered the crown to the Duke of Orléans, who became King Louis-Philippe. Alluding to Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, Laffitte reportedly launched Louis-Philippe’s candidature for the throne with the words, “William must replace the Stuarts.” (4) Laffitte became president of the Chamber of Deputies. In this capacity he received Louis-Philippe’s oath to the new constitution.
Despite his initial support for the new regime, Laffitte gained little from it. He was one of the chief victims of a financial depression that began in 1827 and lasted until 1832. In March 1831, Louis-Philippe dismissed his bankrupt finance minister and council president.
[Lafitte’s] day-dream was republican monarchy. Vain and honest…he thought himself equal to the direction of public affairs; and, judging of others by his own rectitude of purpose, he imagined it would not be difficult to find honest colleagues to direct the mass, and that the mass would readily fall into their notions. The short rule of M. Lafitte was sufficient to convince the public that he did not possess the necessary talents for government, and to prove to him that able men are more corrupt than he had considered them to be. When his pecuniary misfortunes arrived, and he gave in his resignation as minister, it was generally supposed that they alone led to this decision.…. [H]e had an additional motive for anger, in the contempt of his talents which Louis-Philippe did not attempt to conceal, and the little sympathy which was shewn to him in his calamity. No two men ever differed more in character than Louis-Philippe and Lafitte. The former carries prudence to an excess and is exceedingly reserved in his manner of expressing himself; the latter, although of the most simple habits as regards his own personal enjoyments, was generous to prodigality in the distribution of his wealth amongst others. When in prosperity, his château at Maisons Lafitte was a sort of open house; and parties were given there weekly to several hundred persons. Honest tradesmen of every description…found no difficulty in obtaining loans from him, even without interest; and to the poor he was a friend and benefactor…. M. Lafitte is a thoroughly good man; but he never was, and never can be, a distinguished statesman. (5)
Laffitte memorably mounted the tribune in the Chambers and asked the forgiveness of men and Heaven for having contributed to the success of the July Revolution.
When he recovered, Laffitte forged ahead with a new endeavour. In 1837 he founded La Caisse Général du Commerce et de l’Industrie, more commonly known as Caisse Laffitte. The bank was similar to Nicholas Biddle’s Second Bank of the United States, insofar as both were a cross between commercial and investment banks. Through the Caisse, Laffitte helped to finance and organize industrial and railroad enterprises. Laffitte addressed the shareholders when the bank opened:
It is not without emotion that I find myself restored to these labors, and about to crown, with an undertaking worthy of my best efforts, a career in which I have perhaps done some good. I forget many past mishaps, and all the bitterness of political life, which promised nothing to my ambition, and the burden of which I only accepted from devotion to my country. The future had compensation in reserve for me; and the second of October, 1837 – the day on which I resume my business – consoles me for the nineteenth of January, 1831 – the day on which I left it. (6)
Jacques Laffitte died on May 26, 1844 at the age of 76. He is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
- Henry Theodore Tuckerman, Essays, Biographical and Critical: Or, Studies of Character (Boston, 1857), p. 86.
- Vincent Nolte, Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres (London, 1854), p. 264.
- Sylvia Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal 1814-1824 (Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1991), p. 65.
- Munro Price, The Perilous Crown: France Between Revolutions, 1814-1848 (London, 2007), p. 191.
- “A Newspaper Editor’s Reminiscences,” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. 22 (October 1840), pp. 416-417.
- Essays, Biographical and Critical, p. 90.
A vain man, unruly and surrounded by what is most suspicious in Paris, but whom it would be difficult to exclude, even if the court and the government exerted themselves to try.
Count Pozzo di Borgo