Sunday, September 2, 2007

"A Nation of Counterfeiters"

Stephen Mihm is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Georgia.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new book, A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States, and reported the following:
Flip open A Nation of Counterfeiters to page 69 and you’ll find yourself back in the fall of 1811, just months before the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Great Britain. The hero – or villain, depending on your point of view – of this particular page and chapter is a man with the curious name of Seneca Paige, who is running from Montreal to New York City, then on to Baltimore, and then back to Canada, all the while outwitting law enforcement officials who were in hot pursuit.

Paige was a counterfeiter. Like others in this book, he lived at a time when the phrase “making money” had a curiously literal meaning. Prior to the Civil War, private banks printed and circulated thousands of different kinds of paper money of their own design, which became the building blocks of the nation’s credit system. The chaos of the currency opened the door to money makers of a more mischievous bent, including Paige. For the most part, men like him operated with impunity, and his escapades on this page are pretty representative of the ease with which counterfeiters dodged prosecution. Their success had much to do with their many sympathizers. Paige, who died in the 1850s, alluded to this fact in fashioning the epitaph for his gravestone: “He was truly the poor man’s friend.” Those poor people looked out for him.

Much of the first two chapters detail the cat-and-mouse games played by entrepreneurs like Paige, many of whom settled in remote areas on the nation’s borders, where they might ply their trade without interference. Paige opted for the rugged and otherwise wild borderland between Canada and Vermont. This proved to be an especially hospitable locale: the simmering hostilities between the United States and British Canada made the locals more than happy to indulge people like Seneca Paige, who preyed on the hated Americans south of the border. Indeed, page 69 ends with the outbreak of war, and Paige’s return to Canada, where he began counterfeiting anew, building a criminal empire that stretched from a small village in the wilderness to nearly every city and town of importance in the United States.

Succeeding chapters follow other, equally colorful characters: counterfeiters, brilliant engravers, and shady bankers. The characters all belong to what one financial writer of the time described as “a nation of counterfeiters,” by which he meant anyone obsessed with making money in this era. It didn’t matter whether they did so in clandestine workshops of the frontier or in the chambers of a marble-columned bank in the nation’s burgeoning cities: they shared a common impulse to conjure wealth out of thin air. While these money makers are longer with us, their spirit lives on in the speculative bubbles and credit manias of the twenty first century. We remain, even today, a nation of counterfeiters.
Read an excerpt from A Nation of Counterfeiters and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue