Voltaire and the French Lottery
Voltaire was one of the most prominent public figures in Enlightenment-era France. He was a versatile, prolific writer penning around 20,000 letters and 2000 books in the fields of history and science.
As an outspoken critic of the French establishment, he railed against religious doctrine while championing civil rights and freedom of speech.
Voltaire was also a shrewd investor, always open to new ways of making money. It was this predisposition which somewhat bizarrely led to his involvement in a scheme to manipulate a French lottery.
What’s in a Name?
Following a dispute with a French nobleman who had mocked him about his name change, Voltaire, real name François-Marie Aroue, was imprisoned in the notorious Bastille prison before being exiled to England for two years. On returning to France,he found himself in dire financial straits, as did the French Government.
Such was the decline of the French economy in the early 18th century that the government started to issue bonds to help raise money. As things got steadily worse, they were forced to cut interest rates on the bonds which only served to diminish their market value.
In order to inflate their value and raise much-needed funds, Finance Minister Le Pelletier-Desforts proposed a lottery for bond-holders which allowed them to purchase tickets that were 1/1000th of the bond’s value. The eventual winner would then receive the face value of their bond as well as a jackpot of 500,000 livres.
Unfortunately, the concept was fatally flawed because it allowed individuals who owned low-cost bonds to buy tickets very cheaply and have the same chance of winning as those with more expensive bonds.
This was seized upon by a young mathematician by the name of Charles Marie de La Condamine who had fallen into the company of the wayward Voltaire. De La Condamine surmised that if he bought a large percentage of small bonds, split them into 1000 livre portions, he would then be able to buy each lottery ticket for 1 livre.
During a dinner party one evening he discussed his scheme with Voltaire and proposed that they form a syndicate. The only remaining problem was that relying on just one person to receive all the lottery tickets might arouse suspicion. To get around the problem Voltaire came to an understanding with one of the distributing notaries which enabled him to collect reams of tickets without attracting attention.
A vaincre Sans Peril, on Triomphe Sans Gloire
The scheme worked for six months, netting the syndicate millions of livre. However it was eventually undone by Voltaire who had taken to writing smug messages on the back of tickets. Phrases such as ‘Here’s to the good idea of M.L.C’ and ‘Long live M. Pelletier-Desforts’ were enough to alert authorities who soon realised that many of the prizes were being claimed by the same group of people.
As a result Voltaire and the syndicate were taken to court by the French Government who wanted to recoup the money. But because no laws were actually broken, they were allowed to keep all of the prize money. Unsurprisingly, the lottery was shut down soon after. Nevertheless, Voltaire secured for himself around 500,000 livres which provided the basis for many shrewd business investments in the years to come.