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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States » User review

An economy built on alchemy

  • Dec 2, 2007
  • by
A book about counterfeiting runs the risk of going in two, potentially dangerous, directions. It could become a technical tome, full of monetarist detail or obscurities of weights and measures. Or it could be a police story, full of the derring-do of the Secret Service and their predecessors but spare on the historical or economic context of the issues involved. Stephen Mihm should be commended, not only for avoiding these two extremes, but in fact for combining a great deal of historical and economic analysis with some pretty readable prose. "A Nation of Counterfeiters" is as much a collection of biographies as it is a history of government's attempt to crack down on unbacked currency.

From colonial days, through the Federal era, and to the eve of the War Between the States, Mihm traces the history of counterfeiting in the U.S. He does a very good job, I thought, placing the act of counterfeiting within the context of American banking and economic expansion before the nationalization of the currency after the war (in fact, the role of stamping out counterfeiting as part of the process of economic centralization is one of the key historical lessons to take from this volume, I believe).

The author also highlights one of the fundamental contradictions of our modern economy -- though it may not have been his intention to do so. If, as he writes on page 25, "the successful circulation of these [counterfeit] bills depended upon what seemed, at the time, an almost magical belief that bank notes constituted wealth, that paper could pass as gold," how is that any different from the situation that has obtained since President Nixon took us off gold in 1971? But that question is outside the scope of this book.

I hope this book gains a wide audience. Though the topic might seem an obscure corner of the dismal science, "A Nation of Counterfeiters" is an educational, and even entertaining, volume about a subject that's still very relevant today.

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More A Nation of Counterfeiters: Ca... reviews
review by . January 18, 2008
. . . on a subject most people don't even consider!    I'm a big history buff. I'm even reasonably proficient on some of the monetary battles which have taken place throughout American history. But the material presented in this book was truly new to me.    Although a history book, the author is a good storyteller while relating the accounts of various counterfeiters operating at different points in American history. One also learns a great deal about the …
review by . December 27, 2007
Like the early American currency that the author describes, this book is a bit inflated. We are told that in many places, counterfeit and other dubious currency was the only medium that enabled trade and that people were often grateful for the presence of any paper money. Then, a few pages later, we are told the same thing again.  Repeating a point for emphasis is good, but combined with labored prose, the repetition makes for annoying reading. What's worse is that some of the background …
review by . December 24, 2007
I admit to one of those folks who thrive on trivia, in particular, historical trivia. This book fit my needs perfectly. This history of counterfeting in our country, the United States, is not something that you run across in your everyday history text, nor, with one exception, much less an entire book devoted to the subject. This I liked. The author has done a wonderful job of research and has presented it is a very readable fashion. Mr. Mihm has taken a subject, that at first glance, would seem …
review by . December 10, 2007
The history of banks and banking in the expanding United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is an amazing one. As the frontier moved westward faster than anyone had anticipated, vast new lands were opened up for settlement, producing ever increasing amounts of raw goods. While these goods were valuable, in order for the transactions to be carried out, there needed to me some generally accepted medium of exchange. In other words, there needed to be an adequate supply of …
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Andrew S. Rogers ()
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About this book


Mihm vividly and entertainingly describes the muddled and often fraudulent economy of pre-greenback America: those freewheeling, pre–Civil War days when the federal government not only did not print paper money but likewise did not bother to regulate those regional banks that did. With more than 10,000 shades and varieties of cheaply printed currency on the market by the 1850s, counterfeiters had a field day. Mihm, an assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia, details the flimflam men and their ruses, and paints a stark picture of a world where counterfeit currency was at times issued in such volume that it threatened to spark significant inflation. Mihm's villains include the notorious privateer, minister and alchemist Stephen Burroughs, along with numerous bankers, engravers and charlatans. Mihm's title was a phrase used in 1818 by Hezekiah Niles, proprietor of what was the country's leading financial journal, theWeekly Register. Niles wrote, Counterfeiters and false bank notes are so common, that forgery seems to have lost its criminality in the minds of many. As Mihm ably shows, the chaos did not end until Lincoln's presidency, and even then it receded only grudgingly. 37 b&w illus.(Sept.)
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ISBN-10: 0674026578
ISBN-13: 978-0674026575
Author: Stephen Mihm
Publisher: Harvard University Press

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