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Published by EH.NET (July 2006)

Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen, Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. v + 240 pp. $25 (cloth), ISBN: 0-226-91068-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Gunderson, Shelby Cullom Davis Endowment, Trinity College.

This book is comprised of short biographies of those believed to be most influential in the development of the financial system during the early national period in the United States. There are the usual suspects, Alexander Hamilton and Robert Morris, but also some that seldom are mentioned, such as William Duer and Thomas Willing.

The accounts move along fluidly and the authors are not shy about assigning credit or blame. Hamilton receives the customary praise but Andrew Jackson does not get the criticism one might have expected for someone who killed the national bank. Rather, the argument seems to be that by time of his presidency the financial system had developed to the degree that its alternatives were not that much worse. This last chapter — combined with discussions of Nicholas Biddle — departs from the usual pattern of the book. The other financial entrepreneurs — outside of the scoundrels such as Duer — are generally thought to have played important roles in developing the economy. This point can be argued, here and elsewhere in history. Do entrepreneurs have a large, independent role in the growth of new products and technologies or are they often implementing changes that would soon appear in any case? To the authors’ credit, and the readers’ benefit, these arguments in Financial Founding Fathers are thoughtfully developed and clearly stated.

The book is enjoyable to read. Each entrepreneur is portrayed playing a role — “Creator,” “Judas,” “Sinner,” and “Savior” — for example. And the narrative seems natural, not stretched to cover a framework that skews the examples. You will enjoy this book and it can be used for a wide range of audiences from a supplementary reading for undergraduates to a departure for discussions in seminars to a good read on your flight home from a conference.

Gerald Gunderson is Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of American Business and Economic Enterprise at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.