A book review of Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters by Ben Tarnoff
Rating: 3.5 Smileys
In Moneymakers, Ben Tarnoff chronicles the lives of three colorful counterfeiters who flourished in early America, shedding fresh light on the country’s financial coming of age. The speculative ethos that pervades Wall Street today, Tarnoff suggests, has its origins in the craft of counterfeiters who first took advantage of a turbulent American economy. Few nations have as rich a counterfeiting history as the United States. Since the colonies suffered from a chronic shortage of precious metals, they were the first place in the Western world to use easily forged paper bills. And until the national currency was standardized in the last half of the nineteenth century, the United States had a dizzying variety of banknotes making early America a counterfeiter’s paradise. Tarnoff recounts how three of America’s most successful counterfeiters – Owen Sulivan, David Lewis, and Samuel Upham – each cunningly manipulated the economic and political realities of the day, driven by a desire for fortune and fame. Irish immigrant Owen Sullivan (c. 1720-1756) owed his success not just to his hustler’s charm and entrepreneurial spirit, but to the weak law enforcement and craving for currency that marked colonial America. The handsome David Lewis (1788-1820) became an outlaw hero in backwoods Pennsylvania, infamous for his audacious jailbreaks and admired as a Robin Hood figure who railed against Eastern financial elites. Shopkeeper Samuel Upham (1819-1885) sold fake Confederate bills to his fellow Philadelphians during the Civil War as “mementos of the Rebellion,” enraging Southern leaders when Union soldiers flooded their markets with the forgeries. Through the tales of these three memorable counterfeiters, Moneymakers spins the larger story of American financial ups and downs during its infancy and adolescence, tracing its evolution from a patchwork of colonies to a powerful nation with a single currency. It wasn’t until the final year of the Civil War that a strengthened federal government created the Secret Service to police counterfeiting, finally bringing the quintessentially American pursuit to an end. But as Tarnoff suggests in this highly original financial history, the legacy of early American counterfeiters lives on in the get-rich-quick culture we see on Wall Street today.
Despite the book’s title, the actual life stories of the three counterfeiters spotlighted are secondary to the book’s true focus; that being a brief history of the role paper currency has played in the economy of colonial America, the early United States, and Civil War. The three counterfeiters are held basically as snapshots of this history, and are thus treated as such. There is no in-depth exploration of each man’s enterprise (criminal in the case of Sullivan and Lewis, merely speculative in Upham’s case) in how they worked, or even really of their motivations. One thing that was puzzling, was the choice of a couple of the counterfeiters Tarnoff selected to highlight. For instance David Lewis is more known for his exploits as a highway robber, and the Robin Hood-like legend that grew around those exploits, than he is as a counterfeiter. He may have gotten his start as a counterfeiter, but the book barely talks about Lewis as a “moneymaker.” Certainly there were other counterfeiters who might have illustrated the precarious nature of a paper-based economy in a time before a single federal currency better than Lewis did. Tarnoff’s use of Sullivan and Upham is more successful, with Sullivan being a good example of inter-colonial rivalry and the economic tensions between the colonies and England that would eventually lead to war less than 20 years after Sullivan’s hanging, and the fundamental need for more circulating currency that was endemic in America up into the 20th century. Upham’s story as a man who purposely made Confederate currency to make money for himself, as well as to help the Union war effort, also shows the dichotomy between the stability that United States’ efforts towards a central currency brought, and the havoc not having one played on the Confederate economy. The overall point of the book, that the tradition of counterfeiting is a unique American experience that continues to this day, and was informed by the same set of values that infuses Institutions like trading stocks on Wall Street is much more specious. Connecting counterfeiters with American economic and territorial expansion is logical. Connecting men like Lewis to the men on Wall Street, as those who create wealth from nothingness and lead the economy to ruin is a leap to say the least, and seems to come from a more modern day political tendentiousness than as the result of good scholarship.
The book is fairly well-written. This narrative is straightforward and, even if it would have been nice had more of the counterfeiter’s personalities been included, is enjoyable to read. The debate between the merits of an economy based on paper currency and one based on precious metals can potentially be a very dry one. Using the stories of three distinct individuals makes that debate colorful and interesting for a general interest book. It just would have been nice had it been left at that.
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