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Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America Audio CD – Abridged, Audiobook, CD
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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. --This text refers to the Digital edition.
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 --This text refers to the Digital edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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. Until the nineteenth century, paper was printed with copper plates. Copper is soft, and after five thousand impressions, the plate wore out. It had to be re-engraved. This never produced the identical image, so even good bank notes showed variations which made counterfeiting a snap. The author introduces Jacob Perkins, an American genius unknown to me and most of you. Just after 1800 he invented steel engraving. This made duplicating a bill much harder, but the book collects a dozen fascinating counterfeiting capers with an explanation of the technology behind them.
Galbraith's Money is fun to read and well organized. Goodwin's Greenback is even more fun. Well organized it isn't, but in chapter after chapter he tells wonderful stories about Americans and their attitude to paper money (Jefferson and Jackson hated it; Franklin and Hamilton loved it). We forget that gold and silver coin were scarce in the U.S. until late in the nineteenth century, so even people with a moral objection were forced to use paper money.<...
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? Or a more racy installment plan (No interest and no payments until May 1808, or until the emperor conquers Russia, whichever comes first! Don't delay! Act now!)
"Greenback" then goes into satisfying detail on the banknote phenomenon, the system of the 19th century whereby banks printed notes (dollars, promises to pay) and either backed them up or did not back them up with gold in their vaults. As I understand it, the US government did not start printing such notes until the Civil War, and it did not become the sole legal printer of dollars until the 1920s. I would have liked more detail about how that latter change came about. What was the exact last day when you could use a dollar printed by a bank. Why did they wait so long to pass such a law, which seems perfectly natural to us now? Might the conversion have had anything to do with the subsequent worldwide depression? All fascinating questions for a follow-up volume which I hope will come from the febrile pen of Mr. Goodwin.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
on a whole range of issues in american history that I have never
before seen a good explanation...Read more
to side track and lose the thought of the heading of the
book. (Hence only 4 stars.Read more