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Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America Hardcover – January 7, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

After a strong start, this history of American money loses its thread and ends up as an entertaining collection of trivia, personality profiles and vignettes rather than the compelling narrative promised in its opening. Still, Goodwin's flair for a colorful tale makes for rich reading, covering such odds and ends as a brothel in the Treasury Department, a prayer vigil over banking deposits, exploding printing presses and even a counterfeit scheme run from behind prison bars. Goodwin (Lords of the Horizons) makes some excellent points about the role of paper money in early U.S. history-it was the earliest symbol of the new country; it helped push colonists West; it even helped familiarize Americans with their native artists-but the significance of the stories he's chosen to include isn't always clear. After presenting a single national currency as one of the holy grails of early American banking, for instance, he glosses over the moment it finally arrives, a true turning point in American financial history. Goodwin's position as a foreign observer (he is an English journalist) occasionally trips him up: no one in America, for example, says "that will be four dollars thirty six." The cast of characters is as colorful as they come, and in the end the book makes good reading for those interested in odd and exciting tales from American financial history. But it's not the fascinating narrative take on the history of money in America that Goodwin sets out to deliver, and which the subject deserves. 30 b&w illus.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Goodwin tells the story of the world's dominant currency, the dollar, and its astonishing role in American history. We learn about the endless list of characters who shaped this country, both famous and obscure, and how they profoundly influenced its growth because they understood that money was the key to unlocking liberty and the pursuit of happiness or wealth. Paper money, invented in Boston in 1698, was known as "bills of credit," which people could use now and pay for in years ahead. Unlike Europeans, who were attached to money for its own sake, Americans used it as a medium for growth with an entrepreneurial spirit that has flowered in this country during the more than 300 years since the dollar was invented. Goodwin reports, "America's theology was a secular one. It revolved around money and liberty, promise and return, profit and loss. It revolved, in fact, around the miracle of money." Mary Whaley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (January 7, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805064079
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805064070
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,458,710 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jason Goodwin is a best selling novelist, traveller and historian. His first book was all about tea, and his second described a 2000 mile walk from Gdansk, on the Baltic, to Istanbul, on the eastern Mediterranean. That turned into an obsession with the ancient capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. He thinks that the best way to learn about a subject is to write about it, so he wrote Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, described by Jan Morris as 'a high-octane work of art'. Time Out called it 'perhaps the most readable history ever written on anything' and the New York Times Book Review generously chose it as their cover story - with the result that it sold 50,000 copies in hardback in the first week.
His Istanbul-based series of historical thrillers began with The Janissary Tree, winner of the 2007 Edgar Award for Best Novel. His novels have been translated into over 40 languages; the latest is The Baklava Club.
Jason lives in England with his family and a dog called Bridie.

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Michael Oppenheim on March 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I don't know why books on economics try to be funny, but there is an ongoing genre. John Kenneth Galbraith's Money (1975) is a classic. Aiming for the same combination of erudition and laughs, Goodwin does a fine job.
Unlike Galbraith, Goodwin confines himself to America. He hasn't written an organized account but a collection of amusing anecdotes. But they're good history, so they remind us how much of our daily behavior would seem wildly bizarre to our ancestors.
At a simple level why should we give something valuable - say a week's work - in exchange for a piece of paper? Of course, today's money is guaranteed by the U.S. government, a reliable organization. This wasn't the case for most of U.S. history. In, say 1840, you might receive an impressive certificate for ten dollars - payable in specie ("real money," i.e. coin) at Fred's bank in Lexington, Kentucky. If you lived in Lexington and knew Fred was reliable this was acceptable. Living fifty miles away in Louisville, you might not feel so comfortable. You might insist on a few extra of Fred's dollars to compensate for the risk. Far away in New York, who knew about Fred? His dollars might be worthless or accepted at a big discount.
What a mess! In fact, state regulation existed, but it was not rigorous. Readers will chuckle as Goodwin explains how bankers in a given city would assemble a chest of hard money. On the arrival of a state inspector checking that each bank had enough specie to cover its notes, the chest would be rushed from bank to bank just ahead of the inspector. The Civil War finally forced the U.S. to issue paper money, but this was regarded as an emergency measure, and for decades afterward "greenbacks" were looked upon with deep suspicion.
Switching gears, the author discusses counterfeiting.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Ritter on May 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is a very enjoyable work, well-written and researched, with numerous anecdotes and sidelights. I thought particularly strong the early chapters on colonial and post-revolution America. One sees in Jefferson an early version of a common type today: the person who is adamantly opposed to debt and credit instruments because he himself is hopelessly swamped in debt. Today's debt paranoiac shuns credit cards and deferred payment schemes of all stripes in favor of cash (paper dollars and checks drawn on bank accounts). But for Jefferson those very paper dollars and banks were suspect. For him, the only "real" money was metallic: gold or silver. The only stores of value in his opinion were coins or bullion or land.
This brought him into opposition to Hamilton, who wanted to inaugurate the new republic by assuming a huge load of debt (all the promises of payment represented by the wartime "Continentals"). Hamilton had a plan to set up a bank and issue paper money backed by gold reserves which didn't exist yet, but which he was confident could be built up by land sales and import duties. His plan, a risky scheme in Jefferson's opinion, was approved by Congress, and our little country began its life with a whopping 42 million dollar debt (p. 102). In spite of Jefferson's misgivings, the scheme worked so well that some twenty years later Jefferson himself was able to double the nation's land area by buying Louisiana from Napoleon.
I was disappointed that in this book, devoted as it is to various forms the dollar took over the years, no mention was made of the exact type of payment by Jefferson for Louisiana. Was it gold bullion? American gold dollars? Spanish gold dollars? Was there some of the paper money that he so despised? Was there a mortgage involved?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Manos Lingunis on August 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Jason Goodwin is a polarizing author, whose books are either hated or loved by his readers. As in his best-known previous book, "Lords of the Horizons", in "Greenback" he uses a lot of wonderful anecdotes to spice up his prose and keep the reader interested. As in that book, his grasp of the essence of the subject is pretty good, although one could disagree in the details.
I am one of those readers who choose to stay away from rigorous, traditional history books because I am turned off by the stuffiness and the pedantic detailed narrative that they often provide. (I came to this end after having read a good deal of them...) I believe that the history of any subject is the sum of the personal histories of the people who participated and formed those events, famous or obscure, big or small. Jason Goodwin gives us plenty of those little personal stories and thank God for that as far as I am concerned.
I found this book very enjoyable to read and rich in information, although not as exciting as "Lords of the Horizons", so I am giving it 4 stars instead of the 5 I gave that one. I hope Jason Goodwin keeps giving us those great books on his diverse subjects and full of those colorful characters, and I am looking forward to his next book of non-sterilized history.
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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Rick Mitchell VINE VOICE on April 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Simply put, this is a bad book. It is poorly written and is bad history.
When the author stops digressing, he has many unimportant and trivial anecdotes about the dollar in American history.
His interpretation of American history is terrible. Just a few examples: Early in the book he cited Hawthorne, Thoreau and Twain (who lost a fortune trying to be an industrialist) to reach the conclusion that Americans did not collect and hoard money in the nineteenth century. Apparently he did not read the rest of his book which went on ad nauseum about Americans in the nineteenth century chasing and counterfeiting the dollar. In another instance he concludes that all civil rights were suspended during the civil war (not that this had anything to do with $) - completely ignoring the fact that the Supreme Court overturned Lincoln's attempt to suspend habeas corpus. Lastly (I could go on and on), he finished the book by noting that on our dollar bills are the icons that were present at the birth of our nation. This, after telling how Grant and Cleveland were on our bills! Last I looked they lived late in the next century.
I kept hoping that some pearls about the dollar would come shining through. Whatever pearls there might have been were muddied by his erroneous history and his horrible interpretations of the history he included.
I felt I wasted a good deal of time reading this book. If one wants to read the only useful part of this book, limit yourself to the chapter(s) describing the private banknotes. Nothing before or after is at all worthwhile.
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