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An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 5, 2004

4.2 out of 5 stars 103 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The word "epic" in the subtitle is a tip-off that instead of a critical history of the American economy, this book is a celebration of it. Nothing wrong with that, especially when the tale's told breezily and accurately. In fact, Gordon (The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street) notes the many stumbles and the frequent foolishness and corruption that attended the nation's rise as an economic powerhouse. The larger story of success is, in fact, an extraordinary one. The trouble is that the American economy, like every other, bends much out of shape. It has always provided opportunity but always with too much inequality. A full history of the American economy would take this into consideration—in the past as well as the present, and Gordon's doesn't. Also, his book sometimes wanders off into irrelevant subjects, like the origins of the computer, but his grasp of the larger picture is sure and his prose bright. His chapter on Northern and Southern Civil War finances is a model of its kind. Those seeking an introduction to the general history of American economic power will find few better places to start, as long as they keep in mind that the nation's economy is not perfect, its benefits not unalloyed and its future domination of other economic powerhouses by no means assured.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Gordon, a financial historian, tells the story of America's dynamic power, which is tied to its entrepreneurial culture and immense economic wealth. From the settlement at Jamestown (which was founded by a profit-seeking corporation) to the birth of the Internet, our history is replete with people who made America great with their hard work; ambition; ingenuity and, in the author's view, dumb luck. We learn that American power lies in its widely distributed wealth, the capacity of its people to create more wealth, and limitless imagination in developing new ways to use wealth productively. Others want to have what we have and adopt our ways because America is the global beacon of economic success. Engagingly tracing U.S. history from its earliest days to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Gordon tells the tale of a crooked path of triumph and disaster, daring and timidity, and great individuals and fools. The author shows that ours is a case study in liberty. Mary Whaley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (October 5, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060093625
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060093624
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #102,248 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Forests have been cleared for all the books that have been written on American History. While a few stand out from the pack, it is harder to find one that is fresh, interesting, and informative. "An Empire of Wealth" is all of those things and I strongly recommend it to you. Instead of being a military, political, or diplomatic history, John Steel Gordon has written an economic biography of our country. Do not mistake this approach for a dry treatise on economics. Far from it, this book is full of struggle, wild success, bitter failure, dislocation from wrenching changes in the economy due to the rise of new technologies, and marshalling resources for war.

He begins with the resource rich, but hostile wilderness that the early explorers found. The British made the first permanent settlement at Jamestown in what is now Virginia. The settlers had come for gold, found mica that they mistook for gold ore, and only 38 of the 105 survived the first winter. They kept coming from England and they kept struggling until they began to grow and export tobacco. Mr. Gordon then takes us on a fast paced, and amazing journey through the nation's founding, the movement west, our major wars, depressions, and the rise (and fall) of technologies such as steam, the railroads, machine supported agriculture, banking, and international trade. He ends the book with the horrible events we experienced on September 11, 2001.

Not only is this a fun read for anyone interested in American History, it would be a fine addition to the history readings for high school or college students. I especially like the author's honesty about the good and the bad in our history without making us the bad guys or the source of all pain and suffering on the planet.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I purchased "Empire of Wealth" to address the glaring deficit in my knowledge of American history from an economic perspective. At the same time, I was dreading that this history would be boring and dry.

It is anything but. Gordon's effort is downright gripping, a compelling read chock full of information. Gordon has a knack for finding the most intriguing aspects of history and explaining difficult concepts in a manner that is quickly grasped. He is able to get to the heart of a concept without dragging along pedantic baggage. His writing is flawless and the raw historical material is seamlessly synthesized with consummate professionalism.

Gordon wraps his discussion of larger economic themes around the impact that invention, infrastructural development, and politics had on the burgeoning American economy. Examples include the Erie Canal, road and railroad building, the cotton gin, or the bessemer furnace.

From an "ideological" perspective, Gordon falls into the typical free-market, pro-deficit camp, which is consistent with the vast majority of economists today. However, he is far from dogmatic or simplistic, as some reviewers maintain. He acknowledges that unregulated capitalism is "red in tooth and claw" but that labor unions have overstepped their bounds, for example. Gordon devotes much time to the monopolies, oligopolies and collusion of post- Civil War America. At the same time, he fairly points out that not all political attempts to defang raw capitalism were the panaceas so keenly hoped-for.

A nice feature of Gordon's approach is his recognition of less-appreciated historical actors.
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Format: Hardcover
This has got to be one of the best history books that I have read. The book chronicles the start of the United States and the inovations and trials that made the nation great. I particularly enjoyed how it intertwined the innovations with information on the thoughts of politicians, businesmen, and others of the era, and how events such as slavery impacted the economics of the time.

This was a very well written book. I initially picked it up from the library, and then purchased a copy to add to my library.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent historical treatment of economic change from the settling of the American colonies through the economic policies of the Reagan presidency. Savvy citizen investors and consumers need to understand economics and the economy, and Gordon definitely helps us do that.

Major strengths in this book:

* How the original American colonies were established and grew economically. Have NEVER seen this material so well put together. It's an economic genealogy of the states.

* How changes in transportation and manufacturing impacted economic development (rivers and canals, steamboats and railroads, steam engines and cotton gins, etc.) LOTS of insight here.

* How the American economy went through not one or two but many recurring depressions over time. Good treatment of differing policies of presidents and congresses. Good treatment of historical conflict about having a central Bank of the United States. IMPORTANT changes in American mindset here.

* Good review of changes in money. This was a wild and crazy topic in American practice.

* How the American economy went from few to many stockholders. Good treatment of changes in regulation and deregulation.

* Good start on oil. How it came in. How it became dominant.


* Depth of treatment suffers after Reagan era. No mention of Clinton or Bush(es) even though book is copyright 2004.

* The switch from nuts and bolts topics like steam engines to abstract topics like fiscal policy could use more elaboration. This is a valuable and critical point he's making in the history of the country's mindset and it needs more treatment.
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