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A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters
Synopses & Reviews
The story of America is a story of dreamers and defaulters. It is also a story of dramatic financial panics that defined the nation, created its political parties, and forced tens of thousands to escape their creditors to new towns in Texas, Florida, and California. As far back as 1792, these panics boiled down to one simple question: Would Americans pay their debts—or were we just a nation of deadbeats?
From the merchant William Duer’s attempts to speculate on post–Revolutionary War debt, to an ill-conceived 1815 plan to sell English coats to Americans on credit, to the debt-fueled railroad expansion that precipitated the Panic of 1857, Scott Reynolds Nelson offers a crash course in America’s worst financial disasters—and a concise explanation of the first principles that caused them all. Nelson shows how consumer debt, both at the highest levels of finance and in the everyday lives of citizens, has time and again left us unable to make good. The problem always starts with the chain of banks, brokers, moneylenders, and insurance companies that separate borrowers and lenders. At a certain point lenders cannot tell good loans from bad—and when chits are called in, lenders frantically try to unload the debts, hide from their own creditors, go into bankruptcy, and lobby state and federal institutions for relief.
With a historian’s keen observations and a storyteller’s nose for character and incident, Nelson captures the entire sweep of America’s financial history in all its utter irrationality: national banks funded by smugglers; fistfights in Congress over the gold standard; and presidential campaigns forged in stinging controversies on the subject of private debt. A Nation of Deadbeats is a fresh, irreverent look at Americans’ addiction to debt and how it has made us what we are today.
"Nelson, a professor of history at the College of William and Mary, analyzes the financial crises that propelled the economic evolution of the United States from the earliest years of the republic through the early 20th century, explaining that virtually every one (save the Great Depression) was propelled by excessive consumer debt. His lucid depictions of busted bonds, currency spirals, and foreign trade imbalances ably demonstrate the role of 'the farmers, artisans, slaveholders, shopkeepers, and wholesalers whose borrowing had fueled the booms and busts,' while charting the evolution of the country from a borrowing nation for a century and a half after independence to a world lender after WWI. Nelson is unsparing in accounts of the shaky fiscal infrastructure through the 19th century, observing that the postrevolutionary economy was based on spending binges for fashionable 'monkey jackets,' government land sales, and supplying cotton to British mills, the consequences of which devastated consumers, small businessmen, major financial institutions, and eventually the nation as it plunged toward civil war. This astute account of economic disruption and disaster through the Great Depression is a useful and engaging perspective on our propensity for repeating our financial mistakes. Agent: Deidre Mullane, Mullane Literary. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A lively, comprehensive history of financial crashes in American history—and a concise explanation of the little-understood principles that caused them all.
Pundits will argue that the 2008 financial crisis was the first crash in American history driven by consumer debt. But in this spirited, highly engaging account, Scott Reynolds Nelson demonstrates that consumer debt has underpinned almost every major financial panic in the nation's history. From William Duer's attempts to profit off the country's post-Revolutionary War debt to an 1815 plan to sell English coats to Americans on credit, to the debt-fueled railroad expansion that precipitated the 1857 crash: in each case, the chain of banks, brokers, moneylenders, and insurance companies that separated borrowers and lenders made it impossible to distinguish good loans from bad. Bound up in this history are stories of national banks funded by smugglers, fistfights in Congress over the gold standard, America's early dependence on British bankers, and how presidential campaigns were forged in controversies over private debt. An irreverent, wholly accessible, eye-opening book.
About the Author
SCOTT REYNOLDS NELSON is the author of Steel Drivin' Man, which won the National Award for Arts Writing, the Anisfield-Wolf Literary Prize, the Merle Curti Prize for best book in U.S. history, and the Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction. His young adult book, Ain't Nothing But a Man (written with Marc Aronson) won seven national awards, including the Jane Addams Prize for best book on social justice.
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