A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States

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Harvard University Press, 2007 - Business & Economics - 457 pages
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Listen to a short interview with Stephen MihmHost: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

Few of us question the slips of green paper that come and go in our purses, pockets, and wallets. Yet confidence in the money supply is a recent phenomenon: prior to the Civil War, the United States did not have a single, national currency. Instead, countless banks issued paper money in a bewildering variety of denominations and designs--more than ten thousand different kinds by 1860. Counterfeiters flourished amid this anarchy, putting vast quantities of bogus bills into circulation.

Their success, Stephen Mihm reveals, is more than an entertaining tale of criminal enterprise: it is the story of the rise of a country defined by a freewheeling brand of capitalism over which the federal government exercised little control. It was an era when responsibility for the country's currency remained in the hands of capitalists for whom "making money" was as much a literal as a figurative undertaking.

Mihm's witty tale brims with colorful characters: shady bankers, corrupt cops, charismatic criminals, and brilliant engravers. Based on prodigious research, it ranges far and wide, from New York City's criminal underworld to the gold fields of California and the battlefields of the Civil War. We learn how the federal government issued greenbacks for the first time and began dismantling the older monetary system and the counterfeit economy it sustained.

A Nation of Counterfeiters is a trailblazing work of history, one that casts the country's capitalist roots in a startling new light. Readers will recognize the same get-rich-quick spirit that lives on in the speculative bubbles and confidence games of the twenty-first century.

 

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User Review  - PointedPundit - LibraryThing

Although we take it for granted, the dollar was not always sound. Stephen Mihm details the muddled and often fraudulent economy of pre-greenback America in his book A Nation of Counterfeiters. Mihm ... Read full review

Contents

Confidence and the Currency
1
Bordering on Alchemy
20
Cogniac Street Capitalism
63
The Bank Wars
103
The Western Bankers
157
Passing and Detecting
209
Ghosts in the Machine
260
Banking on the Nation
305
Confidence in the Country
360
Abbreviations
377
Notes
379
A Note on Sources
428
Acknowledgments
436
Index
443
Copyright

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About the author (2007)

Stephen Mihm is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Georgia.

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