GREENBACK by Jason Goodwin


The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America
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British popular historian Goodwin (Lords of the Horizons, 1999, etc.) explains how the Yankee dollar replaced Spanish pieces of eight as the world’s most powerful money.

One third of the value of American currency remains offshore, greasing the ways of lawful and illicit international commerce. Here’s the story of the birth and adolescence of a much-beloved, venerated medium of exchange. Starting with wampum, Goodwin describes the continental currency praised by Cotton Mather and delineates the financial scandals that roiled the country before Washington ($1) took the CEO’s office. Jefferson ($2) sponsored the decimal system, and Hamilton ($10) promoted the notion of a national bank. Simoleons bore images of landscapes, railroads, factories, farms, Native Americans, and goddesses. The farther they wandered from home, the more bank notes were discounted. Myriad issues fostered counterfeiting, despite the warning legend that “To Counterfeit Is Death.” (Artistic forgers duly reproduced the dire words.) President Jackson ($20) lost his temper, dueled with the Bank of the United States, and killed it. Paper money was frequently so valueless it could be used as a “shinplaster” to bandage a scraped leg. The Roman X on the ten reminded carpenters of the sawbuck used to prop up their work. The nation’s Great Seal found its way on the greenback with its enigmatic, all-seeing eye, but nobody is sure why. The dollar symbol’s origin is ultimately obscure, Goodwin concludes. He supplies interesting tales of copper- and steel-plate engravers, nice asides, and neat character sketches (most entertaining, some unnecessary for American readers). Here are yesteryear’s gold bugs, silverites, and bimetallists. Finally, William Jennings Bryan appears with his popular “Cross of Gold” oration. With no reference to the Susan B. Anthony coin or Boggs, the artist who literally draws his own pay, the text is more about monetary history than current design, production, or usage.

An interesting and valiant attempt to encompass a subject that may be too cumbersome for one volume.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-8050-6407-9
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2002


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