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

In This Review

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

By Stephen Mihm
Harvard University Press, 2007
472 pp. $30.00

As aftershocks of a crisis in the credit markets continue to reverberate, Mihm offers a timely reminder of the degree to which bad credit and lax regulation have shaped both American finance and American culture. From colonial times to the Civil War, the United States was a cash-strapped society of optimistic dreamers. The future wealth of the country was immense; its current resources, limited. Before the Civil War, there was no national currency; unregulated banks issued vast quantities of bank notes that circulated -- with varying discounts -- as money. This chaos was a paradise for counterfeiters, and Mihm's entertaining and comprehensive account describes the crucial role that rampant chicanery, charlatanism, and fraud played in the rapidly developing U.S. economy. Mihm can be overly portentous at times as he laboriously tells readers how to interpret the history he presents. He also faces an inevitable difficulty for any historian of fraud: he is dealing with unreliable characters and falsified or poorly kept records. But even with these limits, this book provides readers with an important and revealing perspective on the growth of the culture and politics of American business. Chicanery and fraud helped make this country great; recent headlines suggest the process is still under way.

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