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One Nation Under Debt: Hamilton, Jefferson, and the History of What We Owe [Kindle Edition]

Robert E. Wright
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Like its current citizens, the United States was born in debt-a debt so deep that it threatened to destroy the young nation. Thomas Jefferson considered the national debt a monstrous fraud on posterity, while Alexander Hamilton believed debt would help America prosper. Both, as it turns out, were right.

One Nation Under Debt explores the untold history of America's first national debt, which arose from the immense sums needed to conduct the American Revolution. Noted economic historian Robert Wright, Ph.D. tells in riveting narrative how a subjugated but enlightened people cast off a great tyrant-“but their liberty, won with promises as well as with the blood of patriots, came at a high price.” He brings to life the key events that shaped the U.S. financial system and explains how the actions of our forefathers laid the groundwork for the debt we still carry today.

As an economically tenuous nation by Revolution's end, America's people struggled to get on their feet. Wright outlines how the formation of a new government originally reduced the nation's debt-but, as debt was critical to this government's survival, it resurfaced, to be beaten back once more. Wright then reveals how political leaders began accumulating massive new debts to ensure their popularity, setting the financial stage for decades to come.

Wright traces critical evolutionary developments-from Alexander Hamilton's creation of the nation's first modern capital market, to the use of national bonds to further financial goals, to the drafting of state constitutions that created non-predatory governments. He shows how, by the end of Andrew Jackson's administration, America's financial system was contributing to national growth while at the same time new national and state debts were amassing, sealing the fate for future generations.

Editorial Reviews

From the Back Cover

The Untold History of America's First Debt and its Relevance in Today's Economy

“Wright tackles the thorny question of what makes countries wealthy through the lens of a U.S. addiction: government indebtedness.”
-Simon Constable,

“Think that our burgeoning national debt is something new? We've been down this road before. One Nation Under Debt traces the roots of today's looming fiscal crisis back to the birth of the republic and shows how the founding fathers averted financial Armageddon.”
-William Bernstein

“This is economic history both high and low-from Alexander Hamilton, the wizard who put America's finances in order, to the men and women who secured America's future by buying its bonds.”
-Richard Brookhiser

“This book is magnetic. Wright regales us with the bankers and merchants, slaveholders and bondholders, and pen-named politicians of the Early Republic.”
-James W. Mueller, Ph.D., Chief Historian, Independence National Historical Park

"If I could write like Wright, I would be thrilled. Some passages in the book are stunning—almost poetic. For anyone interested in the evolution of the U.S. economy and its early financial system, the first six chapters of this book are essential. Wright makes his point: under skilled management (e.g., Hamilton), debt is good for deepening capital markets, but incurred excessively to finance wars or inappropriate government expenditures, it can eventually prove disastrous."
-Richard Vietor, Harvard Business School, Journal of American History

About the Author

Robert E. Wright is the Rudy and Marlyn Nef Family Chair of Political Economy in the Division of Social Sciences at Augustana College and is a curator for the Museum of American Finance. He is the author of scores of articles, entries, reviews, and chapters, and has authored or coauthored nine books. Wright has written for Barron's, the Chronicle of Higher Education,, and other prominent publications, and has appeared on NPR, C-SPAN, and the BBC.

Product Details

  • File Size: 3342 KB
  • Print Length: 433 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0071543937
  • Simultaneous Device Usage: Up to 4 simultaneous devices, per publisher limits
  • Publisher: McGraw-Hill; 1 edition (February 20, 2008)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0017L8NCS
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #826,536 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Economics and history perfectly mixed July 16, 2008
Dr. Wright's presentation of the nation's first national debt is both engrossing and informative. Perhaps it is his background as an historian, but regardless, his presentation of economics is straightforward and makes for a good read from the layperson's point of view.

Wright shows Alexander Hamilton as the genius that he truly was. While critics of Hamilton tend to focus on his behind-the-scenes machinations during the 1800 election, Wright allows Hamilton's financial wizardry (which should be this founder's true legacy) to shine. Indeed, Hamilton grasped that a national debt and the eventual assumption of states' debts was necessary not only for the new nation to survive practically, but to maintain its international public credit.

I would recommend reading this book in concert with John Miller's biography on Alexander Hamilton, Portrait in Paradox. Both authors show that Hamilton was well ahead of his time.

The chapters read easily, with an early focus on the Dutch and English international finance models of the early and late 18th century. The chapter entitled "Life," which concentrates on a few individual Virgina debt holders, is also engrossing. Wright spotlights the stories of a few individual patriots to show that these debtholders were just as vital to the nation, with their willingness to take a chance on the early United States, as was both France and Holland in their initial financing of the War of Independence.

All in all, a great read.

Dr. Dennis Edwards
Associate Professor of Economics
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars easy and accessable June 26, 2008
Anyone intersted in US history will enjoy this book, it was an easy read on what I thought would be a complicated subject.

The author keeps the subject interesting by mixing the "big picture" of international finance with political skullduggery at home and shines more light on the much maligned Alexander Hamilton's role in safeguarding America's first years.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A subject matter to which many more should be privy June 17, 2008
Why do governments go into debt ? How do they pay for it ? Is that debt a good thing or a bad thing; that is to say, is a national debt a blessing or a curse ? Just what was the breakdown and nature of America's first national debt ? These are just some of the questions answered in Robert Wright's latest work.
It would not be bad bet to wager that few of us in the United States know how and why we incurred our first national debt. Maybe more importantly, even fewer of us probably realize just how much there is to contrast between now and then. Just after the adoption of our Constitution, our debt became, under the care and genius of a young Alexander Hamilton, a relatively temporary and useful tool for putting the credit of the United States on solid footing with Europe; while simultaneously serving as a a positive example to our merchants and businessmen, on whom so much of our finances were dependent. Today, our debt would appear to be nothing more than something for career politicans to continually run up for the sake of votes. Indeed, in today's modern American Nanny State, our so-called care takers seem to have no thought to paying the debt down, nevermind off. A far cry from some 200 years ago ! In Robert Wright's new book, such unfortunate differencees between now and then become all too clear.
There is even something for the more socially minded Historian in Wright's breakdown of those who were our nation's very first creditors. He sheds light on just who these first true patriots were.
In sum, this is a well written book on a very important subject matter.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Things we should all know. October 5, 2012
By J. Reid
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book should be the basis of a high school senior class in economics. The math and the history would be beneficial to all rising adults. (It wouldn't hurt the rest off the population that call themselves adults either.)
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Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
With all of the talk these days of the size of the US national debt it is nice to read a cogent history of how the US handled the national debt that originated from the Revolutionary War and the period up to 1836. Why stop in 1836 - that was when the US paid off its debt and for the first and last time became debt free. The book covers all aspects of this debt, who loaned the US colonies money, who was paid in the continentals that became a major part of the debt, who bought US bonds and how did the US raise the money to pay off the debt. The book also addresses why some nations can progress to prosperity, while others do not. All are subjects of this careful, academic, but charmingly written book. Professor Wright has a nice colloquial style that makes a highly academic subject very readable.

The book concentrates on Alexander Hamilton, the first Sec. of the Treasury and his financial system, a system that laid the financial underpinnings of the US and led to the elimination of its first national debt. The question of taxation is covered as well as the formation of the first and second banks of the United States. While a history of debt, the book does not neglect our current debt crisis. The last chapter describes how our current debt is not only so immensely larger than previous debt, but how it is different and infinitely more dangerous. The book ends with an appendix of 47 pages of tables and graphs describing sources of revenue and who held the debt prior to 1836.
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More About the Author

Robert E. Wright is the Nef Family Chair of Political Economy at Augustana College SD.

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