Unintentionally, I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the past few months reading a lot about finance and the history of our capitalist economy. For someone who took remedial math in college and has trouble keeping her checkbook balanced, this has been a somewhat ponderous effort, but through a string of coincidences and influenced by the current climate, somehow, that’s what I’ve been thinking and reading.
It started sometime last summer, when I picked up a hardback discounted copy of a wonderful biography of Alexander Hamilton. My husband read it after I did, and we were both flabbergasted at how little we had known about Hamilton, one of the most influential non-President Founding Fathers, who often gets overlooked. It was especially interesting to read since we had both read a biography of John Adams, and later I ended up reading The Hemings of Monticello, all three of which conspired to give me a much different (negative) portrait of Thomas Jefferson than I had previously had.
Anyway, the other side effect was that I really enjoyed Chernow’s style in the Hamilton biography, and since I’ve read almost all of David McCullough’s books (and saw him speak last spring with my mom, even), I was thrilled to find a new popular-yet-substantial historical biographer. Turns out Chernow is more of a financial historian than anything else, so next I read his Rockefeller biography, which was also incredibly fascinating. For Christmas, I chose his House of Morgan, which is more history than biography and quite honestly, was a tougher slug for me. But it was still really interesting (frightening?) to see all the ways the Morgan banks here and in London had played a role in international and domestic policy and military engagements.
Now I’m working my way slowly through a great biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt which was another Christmas book, and by a funny twist of fate, my mom and I lucked into free tickets to go hear Robert Reich speak tonight, a former Cabinet secretary and current public intellectual, often speaking about financial issues. If I’m not tired of financial history/biography by then, I’ll tackle Chernow’s The Warburgs, which covers an intriguing family of Jewish European bankers that featured tangentially in The House of Morgan. After that, I might be interested in a good biography of Andrew Carnegie.
Like I’ve said before, my mother taught US History for decades and as a result, I have a passion for American history that could be chalked up to both nature and nurture. I’ve already promised my girls that I would take them to Mount Vernon soon, and I can’t wait to show them all the American history that is within (relatively) easy driving distance. The other aspect of American history I love is how many different lens you can look through, and how each time you do, another shining (or tarnished) facet is revealed.
Do I feel like I understand the current crisis better? I’m not entirely sure, but I do think I understand a lot more about capitalism and how it is entwined with American and global history, which could only be good, right? For example, when you look at American history through a financial lens, you see just how many times our country has gone through a financial panic, recession, crash or depression, and how many recovery and bailout efforts there have been, sometimes literally from a tycoon’s pocket. It happens at ludicrous speed, you could even say, which could really make you wonder about the long-term viability of the system.
So, long story short: I continue to find that I learn history best when told through a narrative following one person or family through a certain period(s) of time, and I continue to be simultaneously entranced and repulsed by America in all its terror and glory.