Sunday, September 02, 2007

Pg. 69: Stephen Mihm's "A Nation of Counterfeiters"

The current feature at the Page 69 Test: Stephen Mihm's A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States.

About the book, from the publisher:

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.

Among the early praise for A Nation of Counterfeiters:

Read an excerpt from A Nation of Counterfeiters and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Stephen Mihm is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Georgia. He is also the co-editor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics (2002).

Listen to a recent interview with Mihm on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

The Page 69 Test: A Nation of Counterfeiters.

--Marshal Zeringue