An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power

In This Review

An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power

By John Steele Gordon
HarperCollins, 2004
480 pp. $26.95
Purchase

No single volume can do full justice to the history of the American economy, but An Empire of Wealth makes a good effort. Gordon follows the story of the American economy from the first English settlements into the new millennium. This staunchly Hamiltonian book will shock readers accustomed to American economic histories that cast Ida Tarbell and William Jennings Bryan as heroes and Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller as villains. Gordon argues that most of the nation's economic problems result from the Jeffersonian legacy of weak, localized, and poorly regulated financial institutions-a legacy that persisted into the savings-and-loan catastrophe of the Reagan administration. The absence of a central bank caused many of the excessive booms and busts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the absence of good central-banking governance contributed materially to the Great Depression. Gordon also gives the Progressives short shrift, arguing that private self-regulation generally worked better than toothless and often counterproductive government attempts. At its best when Gordon enlivens and explains early financial history-recent history is too complex to be captured fully in a short and general account, and Gordon's revisionist agenda makes his tale more complicated still-An Empire of Wealth fills a need: it recounts the history of the American economy from the standpoint of those who like it and the aÛuence it brings.