Law was born in Edinburgh in 1671, the son of a Scottish moneylender. He joined the family business at the age of fourteen and studied banking until his father died in 1688 when he took himself off to London to live the life of ‘Dandy’.
He lost large sums of money gambling and in 1694 fought a duel with Edward ‘Beau’ Wilson over the affections of a lady. Law ran Wilson through and was charged with murder. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by the hanging-judge Salathiel Lovell but this was commuted to a fine on the grounds that his accounted to no more than manslaughter.
Wilson’s family intervened but before Law could be reimprisoned he escaped to Amsterdam where he continued his banking education.
He returned to Scotland in 1700 with a scheme in his head. He proposed that the government should set up a national bank and issue easily redeemable paper money instead of gold. Once people gained confidence in the bank, the government could increase its wealth by simply printing more money. Unsurprisingly, the canny Scots rejected the idea.
In 1708, Law went to Paris where his charm and skill as a gambler made him a favourite of the Duc d’Orleans. Law persuaded the Duc that he was a financial genius and when the latter became regent after the death of Louis XIV in 1715 Law approached him with the same scheme that the hard-headed Scots had turned down.
Law proceeded to sell shares in the bank at a very attractive rate: a quarter in gold and the balance in government bonds which were worth just one-fifth of their face value. The problem was that Law had issued 60 millions’ worth of francs in notes that were secured by just six million francs in gold.
To increase his capital to avoid a run on his bank. he persuaded the regent to grant him a monopoly on land in Louisiana and then encouraged colonists to buy the land by telling them that the Mississippi basin rocks were made of emeralds. This became known as The Mississippi Bubble.
Having established his fortune, Law launched his biggest ever gamble. He offered to pay off all the government’s debts with a loan of 1,500 million livres, charging only 3% interest instead of the usual 4%. The offer was accepted and the former creditors began to reinvest in Law’s bank.
Poor men became millionaires overnight and the crime rate soared as people scrambled to get hold of the gold that could be doubled in value in the morning.
The more shrewd of the speculators realised that the bubble would inevitably burst and began to smuggle their profits out of the country. One Dutch financier dressed himself as a farmer and left with a million francs worth of gold in a farm cart covered with hay.
Confidence was falling and the smaller speculators began to take what profit they could which seriously drained the bank’s resources. Law was forced to issue a statement that he would not exchange more than a 100 livre note per person in exchange for gold and angry crowds began to gather demanding their money back.
Law escaped to Brussels where, despite what had happened in France, he was approached by representatives of Peter the Great who invited him to reorganise the finances of the Russian empire. Law wisely declined claiming exhaustion and returned to England in 1721.
He remained on good terms with France’s regent who even arranged a pension for him. When Law asked him how he had dealt with his country’s bankruptcy, he replied: ‘I disposed of it by making a bonfire of the documents.’
Law hoped that he would one day be recalled to France to again take charge of the country’s finances, but that hope was dashed when the regent died in 1723.
He survived his final years by betting anyone £1,000 to a shilling that they could not throw six double sixes in a row. The number of people who took up the challenge kept him in modest means until he died a poor man in Venice in 1729.