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Poetic Debt

I have a new book in my sights - Robert Wright's One Nation Under Debt: Hamilton, Jefferson, and the History of What We Owe (McGraw-Hill, 2008).   One of our house interpreters discovered Wright's work a few years ago and ever since it's been an ongoing quest to acquire everything Robert Wright ever wrote.  Said interpreter's glowing opinion is seconded by the reviewer of this newest book for the Journal of American History: "If I could write like Wright, I would be thrilled.  Some passages in the book are stunning - almost poetic."  (Remember, this is a book about debt we're talking about.)


Billy Wayson's picture
I just about finished reading four of Wright's works over winter break (2008) and found his later efforts (like the referenced one) breezy, uncomplicated, and occasionally over-simplified and decontextualized -- though I would label none of it anything close to "almost poetic." His first, Origins of Commercial Banking . . ., is a must read for any early Americanist. My main caveat is that financial history, which Wright does so ably, is not economic history, which is still better left to likes of McCusker, Menard, et. al. There is no escaping the turgid when considering economic history.
Billy Wayson (not verified)
Taylor's picture
Hear, hear. The Wright book's primary value is the accessibility of its prose. For an academic of any sort, much less an economics professor, it's exceptionally well-written. That it tells the "untold story" about the national debt is probably overstating things just a tad. Much of the book travels ground that's been pretty well-trodden, especially for the pre-revolutionary period, as his reliance on a raft of secondary sources for much of that analysis shows. His most interesting material is found, unsurprisingly, where most of his original research lies, in the latter chapters that deal with the development of a system in which the national debt could be traded (though the extent of Hamilton's innovation in this area might be rather less than Wright suggests). His chapter on Virginia's bondholders, in particular, is both instructive and downright fascinating (Keeping in mind that fascination is a relative term. I once spent a whole day tracing the implications for Virginians of fractional price shifts for a pound of oronoco tobacco in European markets in the 1730s, which for many people would be a suitable substitute for valium. But then I spent much of the next day engrossed by a Family Guy marathon. Go figure.). For a quick and dirty intro to the relationship between finance and state in the world in which TJ grew up, I'd recommend H.V. Bowen's _War & British Society, 1688-1815_ (1998). It's a slim synthesis of the historiography (80 pages), the first 40 pages of which would provide all the basic information one needs to understand the broad outline of the eighteenth-century British world in macroeconomic terms. For the somewhat more intrepid reader, John Brewer's _The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State, 1688-1783_ (1989) is, and deserves to be, the standard work on the subject. Now that I think about it, it's possible that reading Brewer and Wright, together with McCusker and Menard's invaluable _The Economy of British America, 1607-1789_ (1985) (Their chapter on the Chesapeake should be required reading for anyone interested in TJ's Virginia), might be as good a way as any to gain a firm foundation in the political economics of Early America.
Taylor (not verified)
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