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Playfair: The True Story of the British Secret Agent Who Changed How We See the World

Author(s):Berkowitz, Bruce
Reviewer(s):Paganelli, Maria Pia

Published by EH.Net (June 2018)

Bruce Berkowitz, Playfair: The True Story of the British Secret Agent Who Changed How We See the World. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press, 2018. xxv + 477 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-942695-04-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Maria Pia Paganelli, Department of Economics, Trinity University.

I reluctantly agreed to review this book. I am glad that I did: It is a delight.

The book reads like a novel and its content is fit for a novel. It is the story of William Playfair, a late eighteenth century Scot who worked for James Watt, lived in France through the French Revolution, edited the 1805 edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, adding graphs and new materials to it — convinced that this was what Smith would have done had he lived long enough to know more — and who died sick and desolate, leaving behind a wife and two children, one of whom blind.

Before Berkowitz’s book, Playfair was mostly known as the man who introduced visual representation of numbers, such as graphs, bars and pie charts. Allegedly the first graphs ever published were his visual representation of English Imports and Exports between 1700 and 1782 and of the National Debt of Britain from the Revolution to the End of the War with America (1787).

Berkowitz, in what seems like a colossal feat of archival and non-archival research, presents a much, much more complex character than previously described, and shows us someone who was highly involved with diplomacy and the main political figures of Britain, France, and the United States. Berkowitz’s task seem to be to rebuild Playfair’s story, trying to make sense of all the loose ends present in the various accounts of his life. The main conclusion: Playfair was the mind and the engine behind a massive production of counterfeit money that showed up in France at exactly the same time of the assignats hyperinflation and the eventual collapse of Revolutionary France.

Berkowitz is careful not to explicitly claim causation, but the way in which he presents the correlation of events can easily induce a reader to think that there is more than just coincidence in some events simultaneously happening.

That the Revolutionary government of France suffered from the presence of a large amount of counterfeit currency is no news. Whether the counterfeiting came for personal gain or from explicit plans to bring the French Revolutionary government to its knees, from either domestic or foreign sources, has always been rumored but unproven. Berkowitz claims to have proof that the French high inflation was, at least in part, an active attack from the British government, and that it was planned and implemented by William Playfair.

Banknotes were printed in Britain, at the Haughton castle mill, and shipped to France where they flooded the streets. Active propaganda questioning the amount of assignats in circulation (again planned and executed by Playfair), thus further undermining them, did not help. Inflation became rampant. The French government did not know how to pay its escalating bills. And Napoleon showed up.

Playfair’s understanding of economics seems unquestionable. He studied his Smith well. He understood Smith’s claim of the link between the stability of an economy, its government, and the stability of its currency. Over issuing of paper money would be destabilizing. Smith claimed that if the printing of paper money is left in the hand of private banks, despite some ups and downs, one would expect stability. So how to introduce instability? And enough of it so that an economy would be crippled? By artificially over-issuing paper money, without any constraints; that is, by injecting the market with immense amount of fake money, produced with the explicit intention of doing it.

Playfair was connected with papermakers, engravers, bankers, anybody who could have helped in this massive operation, including top politicians, such as the British Secretary of State of War, to name but a few of his many influential contacts. There are now reports, letters, and three paper molds (including one of a legitimate bank in which Playfair was involved) as evidence.

Why did previous accounts of Playfair tell another story? According to Berkowitz, mostly because Playfair himself took great care not to leave explicit trace of this secret operation, because modern technology makes such research much easier, and, patting himself on his own shoulder, because Berkowitz was curious and knowledgeable enough to put all the pieces together.

The secrecy and lack of official records is linked to the absence of a secret service agency at the time of Playfair. “Secret agents,” like Playfair, worked at their own risk, as individuals, for individual politicians. Playfair, in part searching of adventure, in part strongly believing that the French Revolution was an evil that needed to be stopped, in part looking for ways to support himself and his family, tried to sell his ideas and information to the British government, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, like all other “secret agents” at the time. The British government seemed to get onboard with Playfair’s secret plan for the forgery operation, but regrettably it did not care to listen to Playfair’s warning that Napoleon was planning to escape from Elba Island to which he was sent in exile.

Playfair’s search for money led him to be involved, early in his life, in a sale operation of land in Ohio to French people running from the violence of France. It turned into a scandal. But it saw Playfair already involved with all the top government officials of the United States, from Washington to Jefferson and Hamilton. Late in his life, always desperately searching for ways to make a living, he was involved in blackmail writing (blackmail was not a crime then), writing something contentious, and asking for money not to publish it. In between he wrote several pamphlets and books, including the above mentioned 1805 edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations (with his additions and commentaries), An Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations (1805), The Commercial and Political Atlas (1786, where he first introduced graphs), An Essay on the National Debt, with copper plate charts, for comparing annuities with perpetual loans (1787), For the Use of the Enemies of England: A Real Statement of the Finances and Resources of Great Britain (1796), Lineal Arithmetic (1798), The Statistical Breviary (1801), Statistical Account of the United States of America (1802), and the list goes on and on…

I found this book intriguing and worth reading. Its prose is engaging; its story informative: one is almost effortlessly drawn into learning more about historiography, the major economic, political, and social changes of the end of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century and seeing how they are far more linked to Playfair than one would expect.
Maria Pia Paganelli’s recent publications include “David Hume on Banking and Hoarding” Southern Economic Journal.

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century