Thursday, September 21, 2006

Book Review: "Financial Founding Fathers"

Economics professor Robert E. Wright and independent scholar David J. Cowen have teamed up to produce Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich (just out from the University of Chicago Press). Loosely modeled on Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers, Wright and Cowen's book is a collection of short biographical profiles which highlight nine men for their important roles in the formation of the American financial infrastructure during the first decades of the Republic.

Some of the subjects here are household names (Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson); others aren't but probably should be (Albert Gallatin, Robert Morris). All were instrumental at their own times in getting America's economy through the Revolution, out of the post-Revolutionary doldrums and then on a firm footing through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Wright and Cowen argue, successfully in my view, that Gallatin's decision to utilize Hamilton's system rather than dismantling it was an important (and wise) choice, and make the interesting argument that perhaps Jackson's decision to nix the renewal of the Second Bank is not as repugnant to Hamilton's vision as many have assumed.

I must quibble, as I often do, with the lack of proper references here; while each chapter gets a short bibliographical essay, there are no citations, and only "the most important, most available sources that aided our story" are mentioned at all. This is most unfortunate, particularly with a book like this which offers so many jumping-off points for additional scholarship.

One other thing really bothered me about this book, and that was the way the authors titled their chapters. Hamilton is "The Creator," Tench Coxe "The Judas," Gallatin "The Savior." Stephen Girard is canonised as "The Saint," Robert Morris slapped as the "Fallen Angel." In their introduction (unsurprisingly called "In the Beginning") Wright and Cowen note that they "have linked a 'religious' motif to each of our financial founding fathers. The motifs play homage to the very old notion that there might be a higher power at work guiding the nation and also clarify each character's role in our story." This contrivance is unnecessary and hokey; the book would have been better without it.

Nonetheless, a readable introduction to American economic history and some its greatest founding characters.

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