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A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States Hardcover – September 15, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-0674026575 ISBN-10: 0674026578 Edition: First

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First edition (September 15, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674026578
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674026575
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,414,701 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Mihm vividly and entertainingly describes the muddled and often fraudulent economy of pre-greenback America: those freewheeling, pre–Civil War days when the federal government not only did not print paper money but likewise did not bother to regulate those regional banks that did. With more than 10,000 shades and varieties of cheaply printed currency on the market by the 1850s, counterfeiters had a field day. Mihm, an assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia, details the flimflam men and their ruses, and paints a stark picture of a world where counterfeit currency was at times issued in such volume that it threatened to spark significant inflation. Mihm's villains include the notorious privateer, minister and alchemist Stephen Burroughs, along with numerous bankers, engravers and charlatans. Mihm's title was a phrase used in 1818 by Hezekiah Niles, proprietor of what was the country's leading financial journal, the Weekly Register. Niles wrote, Counterfeiters and false bank notes are so common, that forgery seems to have lost its criminality in the minds of many. As Mihm ably shows, the chaos did not end until Lincoln's presidency, and even then it receded only grudgingly. 37 b&w illus. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

Mihm brings to teeming life a world most Americans never knew existed, a world in which every single purchase was inflected with an additional layer of anxiety about the very currency in which the purchase was to be transacted. Written with exceptional intelligence and bracing wit, A Nation of Counterfeiters is fresh, fascinating and altogether original.
--Michael Zuckerman, University of Pennsylvania

A meticulous and imaginative reconstruction of an entire counterfeit economy that intersected and overlapped with the 'legitimate' economy. A Nation of Counterfeiters is marvelous and unusual history. There really is nothing like it in the literature.
--Bruce H. Mann, Harvard Law School

Stephen Mihm's elegant study demonstrates that 'making money' once had a more literal meaning, when thousands of banks printed their own currency notes and numerous counterfeiters profitably imitated them. Mihm offers an absorbing and enlightening history of the complex relations between money, national stability, and the forging of American character.
--Richard Sylla, New York University

With imaginative research and crystalline prose, Stephen Mihm casts unprecedented light on the confidence games at the heart of early American capitalism. He also introduces us to an irresistible cast of characters, whose brazen exploits provide a new frame for understanding nineteenth century economic debate. A Nation of Counterfeiters is a brilliant synthesis of business and cultural history. This is a book to take seriously.
--Jackson Lears, author of Something for Nothing: Luck in America

Mihm vividly and entertainingly describes the muddled and often fraudulent economy of pre-greenback America: those freewheeling, pre–Civil War days when the federal government not only did not print paper money but likewise did not bother to regulate those regional banks that did. (Publishers Weekly 2007-06-11)

Marvelously entertaining...There are enough shifty characters and bizarre incidents in here to outfit a hundred novels.
--Roger K. Miller (Denver Post 2007-09-21)

Mihm's colorful...account of our early economic history follows a bedraggled cast of con artists, engravers, and gangsters who fueled the Republic's nascent capitalist endeavors with illicit currency. From the Vermont woodlands to the jostling thoroughfares of Manhattan, this cat-and-mouse tale of subterfuge and deceit culminates in the birth of the Federal Reserve and a true national currency. It's a story that in many ways mirrors the country's ascendance from a rangy colonial outpost to an unrivaled economic power.
--Gabriel Sherman (Conde Nast Portfolio 2007-10-01)

[A] revelatory, entertaining book. (New Yorker 2007-11-12)

This is a fun book...Mihm's creative account of the early American economy shines, spotlighting the on-the-edge inventiveness, and over-the-edge cons, that have made the United States so rich in risk, reward and redemption.
--Stephen Kotkin (New York Times 2008-01-06)

A brilliant description of a time in American history that seems at once distant and familiar. Mihm's book is a lucid history of counterfeiting in antebellum America, that dark art's golden age, so to speak.
--Steve Fraser (The Nation 2008-01-28)

Between the Revolutionary era, when the Continental was America's currency, and the Civil War, which brought us the greenback, the U.S. had no national paper currency. Chartered banks and their privately issued notes proliferated. The babel of competing bills created fertile ground for counterfeits, which sprang up like mushrooms. By the 1850s, thousands of different breeds of paper passed as American money. In A Nation of Counterfeiters, Stephen Mihm's relentless sleuthing and lively prose reanimate a world in which every dollar had to be carefully read. This rogues gallery of forgers, coinshavers and engravers-gone-bad holds up a funhouse mirror to the entrepreneurial face of American money-making.
--Jane Kamensky (Wall Street Journal 2009-03-03)

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Customer Reviews

Mihm writes well, and the stories of counterfeiters are rich and interesting.
Tung Yin
You would be much less able to verify their authenticity, simply because you're not sure what they look like!
Ryan Hennessy
Of course, this was like a clarion call for counterfeiters, who leapt to the task with gusto.
S. Pactor

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 36 people found the following review helpful By David W. Straight on November 22, 2007
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
What I had thought the book was going to be about was how the chaos of currency--thousands of banks, railroads, etc issuing banknotes and a veritable horde of countereiters--in the antebellum days evolved into a unified national currency (the "making of the United States" in the book's title). But the emphasis is on the counterfeiters themselves rather than on the evolution and finance. To visualize the overall financial situation, imagine trying to drive in a current-day New York City or Los Angeles with no stop signs, traffic lights, or traffic police.

To appreciate the situation, imagine it's 1855 and you're a customer or the shopkeeper of a small store in rural Alabama. You're looking at a $5 banknote--payment by the customer or as change on a $10 banknote paid by the customer. The banknote is on the Citizens' Bank of Wartburg, Tennessee. Is this valid? Is there a Wartburg, Tennessee [there is]. Is there a Citizens' Bank [no idea]. Let's look at the possibilities:
1) The bank exists, the note is genuine, the bank has funds to back the note. The note is not being discounted to, say, $2 by the customer or shopkeeper. This is the ideal situation--and as the book notes, not all that common.
2) The bank exists, the note is genuine, but the bank (as was frequently the case) has insufficient funds to back the note. The book mentions one bank that issued a million dollars in banknotes, but only had $45 in assets. This is not exactly counterfeiting, but as the book notes, what's the difference?
3)The bank exists, the note is genuine, but it is actually a $1 note altered to $5--this is also not exactly counterfeiting, but it's close.
4)The bank exists, but the note is counterfeit.
Read more ›
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22 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Eric Hobart VINE VOICE on November 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Stephen Mihm has explored an area that many historians have not previously deeply delved into - that of counterfeit money and the history of banking (primarily) in 19th century America.

His thesis that counterfeiting was a major player in the evolution of the market economy is a far cry from anything that I have ever previously read; we've all heard about corn, wheat, etc. being traded in this new "market economy", but the idea that funny money was printed and sold as a commodity is something new to me. I commend Mihm's efforts at tying this underground economy in with the overall trend towards the market economy in early 19th century America.

Other reviewers have commented on the length of the book, or the lack of a diversity of characters; I couldn't disagree more - the characters, though largely revolving around several central people, are well rounded and diverse. We see both genders and many social classes in the book; Mihm does not focus exclusively on those who benefited from counterfeiting, but he also introduces us to the "pushers" (those that actually introduced the counterfeit bills into circulation) or the unlucky recipients of counterfeits as change.

Mihm also delves into the nationalization of banks - at first, I thought that he was off on a tangent here, but then he tied it nicely back into the world of counterfeiting by explaining how this led to the demise of the wholesale counterfeiters in America.

Overall, this book is tremendous & is well worth reading. Mihm has taken many sources that have been largely overlooked by historians and crafted an enthralling narrative that grips the reader. After reading this book, I would speculate that many readers would not even realize that this is an academic text published by Harvard University Press.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Librum VINE VOICE on January 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The subject matter at issue in this volume -- the concurrent rise of a stable currency in the early US, and the rise of counterfeiting practice -- is quite interesting. Mihm enlivens what might otherwise have been a dry academic tome with colorful biographical sketches of the most notorious early counterfeiters. As the stuff of popular history, his book makes for entertaining and somewhat illuminating reading. I, for one, would have preferred a little more emphasis on theory and analysis, a little less on biographical details. My guess is that ANoC began life as a dissertation manuscript that the author thought (or that he was advised by his literary agent) to water down in the interests of reaching a wider readership. My own feeling: he watered too much. Even so, ANoC sheds light on an aspect of US history I had never considered before. Mihm raises many compelling questions. After reading his book, I am interested in exploring this topic further. Kudos to Mihm for sparking my interest. I would definitely read him again in future.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By David Zampino VINE VOICE on January 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
. . . on a subject most people don't even consider!

I'm a big history buff. I'm even reasonably proficient on some of the monetary battles which have taken place throughout American history. But the material presented in this book was truly new to me.

Although a history book, the author is a good storyteller while relating the accounts of various counterfeiters operating at different points in American history. One also learns a great deal about the early banking practices in the US, as well as the chartering (and demise) of the First and Second Banks of the United States.

One thing marred this book for me, just a little, and that is the use of the word "capitalist" in between "counterfeiters" and "con men" -- a tendency which continued throughout the book. While certainly the counterfeiters exercised, shall we say, "creative" capitalism, one should not lump all capitalists with crooks!
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