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The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy Hardcover – October 15, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Consistently interesting and beautifully written, McCraw's narratives of the careers of Hamilton and Gallatin are simply splendid. We are in the hands of a master storyteller, as well as a master analyst of historical materials. (Robin Einhorn, University of California, Berkeley)

A compulsively readable book that is both a dual biography of the two most influential Treasury Secretaries and a study of American exceptionalism—the way in which immigrants played a leading role in building American institutions. (Harold James, author of Making the European Monetary Union)

Tom McCraw's new book is a brilliant account of what the great immigrant financiers accomplished and why their wider-world perspectives became crucial to building the American nation and its economy. (Richard Sylla, New York University)

McCraw has observed a singular fact about this nation's early history: most of the people who directed its finances were immigrants. From Alexander Hamilton to Albert Gallatin, McCraw traces the influence of these remarkable foreign-born financiers, and reveals how their partly-imported sensibilities averted what seemed to be the fledgling republic's most likely fate: bankruptcy. This is history of the highest order. (Roger Lowenstein, author of The End of Wall Street and When Genius Failed)

McCraw sheds light on personalities and policies in this overview of the development of early American finance. The newly independent United States 'had long been bankrupt'; both the fledgling national government and the states were in hock for the War of Independence… Hamilton's decisive advocacy of a national bank and assumption of state war debts laid the basis for economic expansion and cemented the dominance of federal power. McCraw then turns to Gallatin's ascendancy in Congress, where in 1796 he denounced the growth in the national debt and decried high military spending. Starting with the still-resonant contrast between the 'big government' Hamilton and 'small government' Gallatin, McCraw's wealth of historical data should interest any lay historian, particularly when he presents the many 'what if's.' (Publishers Weekly 2012-08-06)

Only two men are honored with statues outside the U.S. Treasury building: Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin. McCraw explores their qualities, foibles, achievements, and failures in order to show why both deserve credit for laying the foundations of American governmental finance...McCraw is a talented storyteller. His highly readable and fascinating work portrays the brilliance of Hamilton and Gallatin against the difficulty of their time and is strongly recommended to all readers interested in American and financial history. (Lawrence Maxted Library Journal (starred review) 2012-09-01)

If you think the current system is a mess, consider the national economy after the American Revolution... A welcome addition to business and financial history, illuminating little-known aspects of the early republic. (Kirkus Reviews 2012-09-15)

A detailed account of the financial negotiations that helped underwrite the United States might not strike some readers as inherently gripping fare, but McCraw has made it every bit as interesting as the more standard accounts of battling redcoats. Men like Morris, Gallatin, and Hamilton had enormous potential to become 'the most dangerous men in the world' (in fact they did become so, in the eyes of their many enemies), and The Founders and Finance takes us into the heart of their temptations. (Steve Donoghue Open Letters Monthly 2012-10-22)

We may not know what we are doing with our own public finances, but perhaps we may take some comfort in the fact that the Founders, two centuries ago, did not know what they were doing, either. (Gordon Wood New Republic 2012-12-07)

Well told by McCraw are the familiar stories of Hamilton's consolidation and funding of the public debt, of his incessant fighting with Thomas Jefferson, and of his final duel with Aaron Burr...McCraw shows just how different was Jefferson's party from the one doing business under the Republican banner today. (James Grant Wall Street Journal 2012-11-02)

As Thomas K. McCraw relates here, America lurched from one financial crisis to another between 1780 and 1840. At many times, it was entirely plausible that the young nation's financial troubles might disintegrate it...The achievements of Morris, Hamilton, and Gallatin cannot be overstated. They erected America's 'basic capitalist framework' by establishing a steady national currency and loosed gushing wells of both private and public credit. These immigrants also fashioned a system of taxation and collection, tamed the nation's debt, and fostered the development of a manufacturing economy. And these astonishing achievements came despite ardent political opposition...The lessons of The Founders and Finance are that America's finances have been far worse than they are today, and that good policies can triumph over political stupidity.
(Kevin R. Kosar Weekly Standard 2013-10-14)

About the Author

Thomas K. McCraw was Straus Professor of Business History Emeritus at Harvard Business School and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (October 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674066928
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674066922
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #138,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 38 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on December 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a somewhat disappointing book. The author was a distinguished scholar of American business and this is his last book. The Founders... is essentially a pair of short biographies of the 2 most important early Treasury Secretaries, Hamilton and Gallatin. These narratives are solid but no more than you'd get from any good biography. The sections on Gallatin are probably the best parts of the book, largely because Gallatin deserves to be better known. Despite the subtitle, there is relatively little in this book about the emergence of the US economy in the early Republic and surprisingly little about public finance. McCraw makes little effort to put the efforts of Hamilton and Gallatin in larger context. How did these early American efforts compare with other states across the Atlantic world? McCraw remarks on Hamilton prodigious reading as part of his efforts to understand finance but what did he read and how did it influence him? There are a number of remarks comparing Hamilton with Jefferson, pointing out the latter's relative provincialism and unfamiliarity with commercial activities but Jefferson was a widely read individual and spent significant parts of his life in Europe. Did Jefferson's economic views have something to do with French Physiocracy?

McCraw's positive effort at analysis is to stress Hamilton and Gallatin as immigrants, part of an argument he makes that immigrants played a very large role in the development of the early American economy. This argument is overblown. McCraw argues that immigrants were only a small fraction of the American population. This is correct, but small compared to what? Certainly compared to the huge influx that occurred in the later 19th century but the correct comparison would be to contemporary Britain.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By not me VINE VOICE on December 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I liked "The Founders and Finance" very much: it's a breezily-written and handsomely-produced dual biography of Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, two of our earliest and most influential treasury secretaries. Readers should know, however, that the book is not really a comprehensive economic or financial history of the early U.S. While topics such as the public debt, tariffs, and the Bank of the U.S. are discussed, just as many pages are given over to military and diplomatic events, the political conflicts between Federalists and Republicans, and the personal histories of early American leaders. In fact, economic and financial developments are often treated fairly superficially, and fans of Thomas McCraw's other books on business and economic history might be disappointed.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By David H. MacCallum on November 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Starting a new country, with a widely disparate population and a vast expanse of territory, is no easy undertaking. But that is the task that the American Revolution brought to America. Everything was new: there was no central government, only a series of weak state governments; there was no hand guiding economic policies; there was no common culture, no common understanding of the country's values, no foreign policy. In fact, it took five years after the defeat of the British forces before the first president of what then was called the United States of America took office. The first administration faced innumerable problems, the most important of which were economic issues. The United States was functionally bankrupt, its credit with the money centers in Europe was non-existent, its economy was mostly agrarian, its foreign trade was managed mostly by the British and the engines of economic growth did not exist.

It was with this background that our first president, George Washington, recruited his most trusted military aide, Alexander Hamilton, to his cabinet in the position of Secretary of the Treasury. This was perhaps Washington's most successful act as president. Hamilton, a poor immigrant from St. Croix, proved to be a remarkable choice. He was industrious and smart, organized and persuasive, forceful and unyielding in his views. He had the vision to form the first Bank of the United States, a major step in expanding the supply of money in the economy. He paid the debts of the country at face value, a step that stimulated the extension of credit from formerly wary foreign investors. He supported the developing manufacturing industries.

For all of Hamilton's talents, he had his full share of faults.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By VA Duck on December 23, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a well written - though terse pair of biographies of two Secretaries of the Treasury. I found the book 'disappointing' for the same reasons as the first reviewer (R. Albin) on this list: the promise (or implication?) of the title is not delivered.

The biographies are short - fact filled and interesting, but contain nothing that hasn't been said before. And in the case of Hamilton, it is vastly trumped by Ron Chernow's epic "Alexander Hamilton" (though, in fairness, Chernow spends 800 pages on that 'trump'). Author Thomas McCraw does provide occasional insight that the immigrant nature of these men gave them unique perceptions of government, military, taxation, and banking. But... if you hope to learn more about the minds of these men as it relates to the details of finance you may come away disappointed. In a much earlier work, Professor Clinton Rossiter was able to analyze Hamilton's political mind with astonishing effectiveness in Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution. That kind of dissection is not even attempted here.

The book is, however, an easy read and informative. McCraw shows an even-handed approach to the Federalist - Republican political brawl (Hamilton - Jefferson), a subject on which some historians fall prey to airing their own convictions. If the read is your first for either of these two great men - you very well may rate this book higher than my tepid 3-star "Its OK", but as earlier said, these biographies have been done before and for me the promise (hope?) of financial analysis was not delivered, or at most reflected in broad philosophies rather than a detailed examination.
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