Title: A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States
Author: Stephen Mihm
Categories: Economic History, Social History, Jacksonian America, Early Republic, Market Revolution, Currency
Place: Frontier Borderlands, Cities
Time Period: 1790-1865
Stephen Mihm describes a world of the post-Revolutionary era and early 19th century that is surprisingly foreign: a time in which money was not standardized, when hundreds and, at times, thousands of different kinds of currency floated through the economy. In this environment uncertainty reigned supreme and proved fertile ground for counterfeiters, who Mihm makes an explicit comparison between illegal counterfeiters and "legitimate" capitalists, both of whom brokered in the murky realm of confidence. In an era in which frenzied land speculators and wildcat banks proliferated, the line between counterfeiters and capitalists was blurred. In the end, Mihm traces how the weakness of the federal government over the money supply eventually gave way to a standardized national currency instituted during the Civil War.
The earlier monetary environment was born during the Revolution, during which the government authorized states to charter private banks with the right to print their own currency. Antifederalists and their later heirs, Jacksonians, opposed any kind of central banking in the form of the Bank of the United States. Counterfeiting took form in two main areas: frontier borderlands (such as between Vermont and Canada, or the Ohio Valley) and the urban underworld (which was marked by social flux and anonymity). Mihm in particular charts the bank wars of the 1820s and 1830s, during which Nathan Biddle sparred with Jacksonians over the Second Bank of the United States. Mihm is unequivocal in his judgement: Jackson's war on the bank was disastrous, leading to an explosion of "pet banks" who flooded the market with hundreds of different kinds of currency, making counterfeiting even easier and touching off financial panics. Mihm's story is ultimately one of rising national power, when the federal government asserted its authority over the currency in 1861 and cracked down on counterfeiters via the Secret Service. For Mihm, a national currency served to weave the nation into a tighter and more cohesive whole.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Borderlands and frontier as unstable spaces (easier for counterfeiting)
- * Weakness of American federal authority during early republic and Jacksonian era
- Jackson's mistakes in attacking central banking
- Assertion of nation-state authority over currency with Civil War
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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