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on September 16, 2010
This is a revised and updated version of a book originally published in 1997. The author reviews the history of the national debt from the beginning of the United States to the present, and does so in an engaging and informative manner. The book is written in a style that does not assume the reader has any specialized knowledge about financial or tax matters.

The author discusses the financial plight of the United States after the American Revolution, and the reasons why Alexander Hamilton (first Secretary of the Treasury) pressed for the creation of a national debt to deal with that financial plight. The author does a good job of setting forth the pros and cons of a national debt that have been raised and debated throughout American history, identifying the political ideas and movements that have influenced the debate over the national debt. The author also shows how and why the national debt has fluctuated over the years, and points out the consequences (both intended and unintended ) of the national debt and efforts to reduce it. Finally, the author reviews the rapid growth of the national debt during the past 40 years, identifies the serious fiscal problems posed by the current huge national debt, and proposes some possible solutions to address the national debt in a serious, systematic way.

Anyone interested or concerned with the current state of the U.S. national debt, regardless of the person's political views, should read this book. Whether you agree or disagree with the author's arguments and conclusions, you can learn much from this book.
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on January 21, 2013
This review is for the original, 1997 edition of this book. Even though the revised edition was published in 2010, the table of contents is exactly the same as the original, so the depth of revision is suspect.

"Hamilton's Blessing" covers the history of the national debt, from the founding to 1997 at a rapid pace. The book is only 198 pages long but the spacing and page size makes it seem even shorter. The book is lightly footnoted but still heavy on detail and does explain the growth and changing character of the debt very well. He also devotes an appropriate amount of material to the history of American tax policy.

Steele Gordon is very critical of modern politicians for their inability to constrain spending. He argues that the debt was intended for emergency spending in times of war or crisis, but today deficit spending is largely a product of weak-willed politicians who refuse to make difficult decisions. Steele Gordon proposes, among other things, a flat tax to simplify budget estimates and take away Congress's power to dispense with political favors through a complex tax code.

I encourage readers who are interested in this book to buy the 2010 edition. The older edition was written at a time when the deficit was less than a third of what it is today, so the sense of urgency does not really come through the text. Also, the 1997 edition discusses the line-item veto a number of times, but the line-item veto was subsequently repealed by the Supreme Court after publication.
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on June 24, 2002
Just two years ago, John Steele Gordon's book on the history of the U.S. federal debt would have seemed dated, even though it was published in 1997. After more than twenty consecutive years of operating in the red, the U.S. federal government had not only erased its annual deficits and began paying down the debt, but surpluses were projected over the next ten years.
This is no longer the case. A tax cut, the war on terrorism, and a slowdown in the economy have combined to push the U.S. government's outlays above its revenues. They have also made this book -- "Hamilton's Blessing" -- relevant again.
Gordon's book is two things: 1) a basic history describing the twists and turns of U.S. fiscal policy over the last two hundred-plus years and 2) a political tract condemning the latest turn U.S. fiscal policy has taken since the Great Society.
By combining the two, Gordon seeks to show that the most recent practice of U.S. fiscal policy -- that of habitually running deficits in peacetime -- is not only unprecedented in U.S. history, but also, more importantly, unsupported by any sound theory of economics.
"Hamilton's Blessing" is well-written and interesting. The book is only slightly marred by a lack of detail in some areas. How exactly does a large public debt hurt your average citizen and by how much? We never find out.
Gordon also should have kept his own political bent out of the book. Among other things, he spends three pages in a less than 200-page book detailing Jack Kemp's personal and political history, including his football career. All very interesting, but not really relevant to the history of the U.S. debt.
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on February 1, 2013
This sets straight a lot of misconceptions about the national debt, such as how it got us out of the debt amassed during the War of Independence, how managing debt properly enhances creditworthiness and where our current debt is likely taking us. Written for people, not economists.
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VINE VOICEon July 25, 2003
John Steele Gordon is an excellent writer, one whom I have enjoyed very much in the pages of American Heritage and who wrote a nifty history of Wall Street called "The Great Game."
This book, "Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt" is a good, if brief, overview of the fiscal history of the American government. It is somewhat misnamed, since the National Debt serves as a background and tie in to each period of fiscal history studied.
The author does a superb job of explaining Alexander Hamilton's establishment of our financial, banking, debt and money system. Here is a woefully under appreciated founder explained succinctly and whose brilliance and indispensability are brought forth by Gordon.
Descriptions of attitudes towards and major changes in financial policy and tools follow. Gordon covers the major aspects: the struggle over the Second National Bank, Jackson's paying off the debt (the only time the US Gov't has been debt free), Lincoln and Chase's tax, greenback and bond finance of the Civil War, the long fight to establish the income tax, the fight over high marginal rates and an efficient system of taxation, and the change in view in the last century from one that deficits and debt were something to be controlled to our current sorry state of view whereby no one worries about much about deficits anymore.
Debt, when properly used, has allowed us to primarily wage wars. It was retired in times of peace. We face an interesting time now, when debt as a percentage of GDP is much higher than it has been in most peacetimes. This raises the question that if we have to fight a truly massive and long war in the future, will we have the capacity to borrow what we need (based on historic statistics, it is a question well worth pondering).
Gordon finishes the book with a polemic against the political culture that has lost its way in terms of providing an efficient and fair and economically sound system of taxation and the willingness to moderate the nation's debt.
This is a good and interesting book. Anyone looking for a succinct telling of the development of our government's fiscal structure will appreciate this gem.
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on June 20, 2010
Gordon succintly traces how and why the national debt has reached $13,049,417,436,809.36 (I just checked a minute ago. For those of you reading this review later, it increases on average $4.06 billion a day). No matter what your political or economic bias, reading this book will give you the background to understand the policy debates and choices to come.

As for readability, this is neither an ecomonics treatise or a political screed. If you are comfortable reading an op ed piece in New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal, you will be comfortable reading this book.
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on August 6, 2011
This was the second book I read on my new Kindle and I thoroughly enjoyed it. While reading, the US Government was in the midst of contentious negotiations over the debt ceiling. The day before I finished, S&P downgraded the US from it's AAA rating. The author's timing was perfect on educating the masses about an important subject in our country today. The author does a great job outlining the history of the national debt, the players and why certain decisions have been made over the last 200+ years. He introduces major actors whose names aren't well-known, but have helped rescue the American economy during national emergencies. I think he did a fantastic job of explaining the methods and motivations of both the left and the right without being partisan.

Highly recommended to history buffs and those interested in discussion points for friendly political debate!
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on October 12, 2011
Wonderful historical review of how our debt got to where it is today, and why. With the constant barrage of news one gets about the national debt nowadays, it is easy to forget that this has been a subject of debate since the inception of our country. A good informal, informative book on the subject. Worth a read for the casual reader who wants to widen their perspective on a hot topic.
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VINE VOICEon April 14, 2004
I tip my hat to Mr. Gordon for providing a compelling short history of national debt, and how it has been shaped by tariffs, taxation and ever-increasing spending that has run amok in recent decades. It is a fascinating study into the competing visions of fiscal responsibility, notably the balanced budget extolled by Jeffersonians, which has actually been achieved on numerous occasions, versus deficit spending espoused by Hamiltonians, and of which John Maynard Keynes became the leading exponent in the inter-wars years between WWI and WWII.
While debts traditionally run high during wars, Gordon notes that since WWII, the yearly budget has rarely been balanced. It is during this time that Keynesian theory took hold and in Gordon's view led to a budget deficit that quickly spun out of control as entitlement programs took up fully three-quarters of the yearly budget. These programs have been virtually untouchable, but in 1995 (the point to which Gordon takes his history) a new reckoning emerged with the Republican landslide in Congress. Bill Clinton duly responded by proposing a balanced budget.
Gordon is a fiscal conservative, but recognizes the need to run in the red during hard economic times. He notes that this was Hoover's mistake at the onset of the Great Depression, as he continued to push for a balanced budget despite warnings that it would make the recession worse. However, the federal deficit, which has mushroomed to over $5 trillion, threatens to bankrupt many of the entitlement programs including social security.
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VINE VOICEon February 16, 2010
Hamilton's Blessing is a book that should be read by all interested in the nation's founding and the strong footing it was established on. Many picture Jefferson and Hamilton as two worthy opponents fighting over the future of the nation. Many have picture Jefferson as the winner, but after reading this book, we see that Hamilton was the true winner of this contest as his policies were the ones that set the US on the path to greatness and economic power. Gordon shows how this happened through Hamilton's efforts to monetize the national debt. Such a decision made credit available to the new nation, and ensured that the US would be able to move forward and develop without becoming dependent on a client state. Anyway, the book is a wonderful read. One I would recommend to all.
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