Book review: The Bank War- Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance (Paul Kahan 2016)

Rating: 5/5

Paul Kahan’s The Bank War is about President Andrew Jackson’s (1829-1837) battle to destroy the Second Bank of the United States. The First Bank of the US was founded in 1791  under Alexander Hamilton’s guidance and dissolved in 1811. The second was chartered in 1816. The banks were founded to try to stabilize currency and establish a good fiscal reputation for the fledgling US with other countries. The banks’ opponents, including Jackson, thought they were an overreach of federal power.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I have no particular interest in banking or finance. I chose to read The Bank War out of curiosity about the era and the fact that Bank War was recently published. After the recent discussions about whether Jackson should be removed from the $20, I knew a little about Jackson’s animosity to the bank—just enough to be curious. (Personally, a century of depiction on currency seems like plenty. We have such a rich history, but always the same five-or-so dudes on our money.)

THE GOOD

The Bank War details the battle between President Andrew Jackson and the president of the US Bank, Nicholas Biddle. It did what good non-fiction should do: it introduces the reader to the people and the era with enough background but not too much. Nonfiction, especially about topics like policy and finance, can be long and intimidating, and this book is neither. It’s academic but approachable.

The Bank War has some evaluations of Jackson’s and Biddle’s characters, but these evaluations arise from specific events and discussion of other historians evaluations. Jackson was and remains controversial. A lack of commentary on his tempestuousness would stand out. This is the man that drove the creation of the two political parties during his presidency as basically For Jackson and Against Jackson. I found him fascinating and repulsive.

This book distilled unfamiliar and complex topics into a compelling narrative. In 160 concise pages, I learned about the early monetary policy of the country (without too much jargon), about Jackson, about the development of a two party system, and more.  The early history of paper money was great and surprising. Having read about metallism policy such as in the election of 1896 with William Jennings Bryan, I had believed that our money was based on bullion until the 20th century.

THE BAD

Two small criticisms:

  • A few times, the brevity of the book is a little unsatisfying, for example where Kahan introduces the faction of the Democrats called the locofocos without any explanation as to the meaning of the name (a self-lighting cigar, wikipedia informs me). What a charming detail to omit!
  • The introduction details his motivation to write the book— the financial crisis of 2008 bringing attention to the role of the Federal Reserve. I hoped the epilogue would contain some synthesis of the two topics but it did not. Perhaps as a historian he left that to others but I would have been curious as to his views, seeing as it was his motivation.
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