A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States

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9780674026575: A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States
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Few of us question the slips of green paper that come and go in our purses, pockets, and wallets. Yet confidence in the money supply is a recent phenomenon: prior to the Civil War, the United States did not have a single, national currency. Instead, countless banks issued paper money in a bewildering variety of denominations and designs--more than ten thousand different kinds by 1860. Counterfeiters flourished amid this anarchy, putting vast quantities of bogus bills into circulation.

Their success, Stephen Mihm reveals, is more than an entertaining tale of criminal enterprise: it is the story of the rise of a country defined by a freewheeling brand of capitalism over which the federal government exercised little control. It was an era when responsibility for the country's currency remained in the hands of capitalists for whom "making money" was as much a literal as a figurative undertaking.

Mihm's witty tale brims with colorful characters: shady bankers, corrupt cops, charismatic criminals, and brilliant engravers. Based on prodigious research, it ranges far and wide, from New York City's criminal underworld to the gold fields of California and the battlefields of the Civil War. We learn how the federal government issued greenbacks for the first time and began dismantling the older monetary system and the counterfeit economy it sustained.

A Nation of Counterfeiters is a trailblazing work of history, one that casts the country's capitalist roots in a startling new light. Readers will recognize the same get-rich-quick spirit that lives on in the speculative bubbles and confidence games of the twenty-first century.

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About the Author:

Stephen Mihm is Assistant Professor of History at University of Georgia.

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)

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