Book Review: The Money Men (H.W. Brands).

Post Published on December 10, 2011.
Last Updated on April 28, 2016 by davemackey.

Portrait of Nicholas Biddle by William Inman
Nicholas Biddle, Image via Wikipedia

I’d never heard of Henry William Brands before reading The Money Men. Despite the late introduction, I suspect that his books will now appear high on my reading list – if they are even able to approach the fascinating quality of this small volume. I do not recall the last time I have read a non-fiction book as voraciously as I have consumed this petite volume – in fact, there are only a few fiction thrillers I can think of which I have consumed in such a compressed fashion.

The Money Men is part of the Atlas Books / W.W. Norton Enterprise series in which “distinguished writers tell the stories of the dynamic innovators and the compelling ideas that create new institutions, new ways of doing business and creating wealth, even new societies.” I will be keeping my eyes open for other volumes in this series as well – hoping that they compare to The Money Men. Especially peaking my interest are Rich Cohen‘s The Record Men: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock & Roll, Tim ParksMedici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteen-Century Florence, and James Buchan‘s The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas.

But let us move on to a discussion of the book proper. It was published in 2006 and is a small hardcover book with attractive dustcover. Contains a total of 239 pages, but the first 206 contain the main narrative with additional resources filling the remaining pages – endnotes, a list of suggested further reading, and the indexes, etc.

The volume consists of a Prologue and Epilogue and five long chapters in-between. The first chapter entitled “The Aristocracy of Capital” discusses the nature of money and financial policy during and following the American Revolutionary War with a significant emphasis on  Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Chapter 2 continues the thread by telling the events that led up to and the consequences of Andrew Jackson’s decision to end the national bank and Nicholas Biddle‘s (Bank President) extreme efforts to ensure the bank’s survival.

Chapter 3 tells the story of the American Civil War and how it changed the face of financial policy – in part as a consequence of a stronger federal government and the needs of wartime finance.

Chapter 4 tells the story of the severe speculation in gold in the post-Civil War era under President Ulysses S. Grant and Chapter 5 concludes the story by recording the times of J.P. Morgan and his significant effects upon finance.

The volume reads in a very easy manner – it is both professional and yet accessible. At the same time, my endeavors to understand financial history and policy are still not complete and while The Money Men has filled in some gaps, it does not provide the complete picture I had hoped to garner. That is not to say anything negative of the volume – for it is not a primer in financial history or policy.

I oftentimes judge the quantity of a volume on several factors, such as:

  • How well the volume holds my attention.
  • How quickly I read the volume.
  • How much new or interesting information the volume provides.
  • The clarity with which the author writes.
  • The extent to which I underline, highlight, and write comments or other notations into the text.

By all of these measures, H.W. Brand’s The Money Men deserves the highest praise. The one thing I would like to see is an article by Mr. Brands analyzing the recent financial recession (2008 and on) in light of the historical story he weaves in The Money Men.

Brands remains largely neutral throughout his work and yet in the Epilogue I thought I detected an echo of approval for the economic system at the conclusion of his history. Is this a correct interpretation of his Epilogue? If so, could Brands provide us with additional insights or reflections based on recent events?

For anyone who is interested in history, finance, or politics, I would add this to your “must read” list. It is an excellent and fascinating read!

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