cover image A Nation of Deadbeats: 
An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters

A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters

Scott Reynolds Nelson. Knopf, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-307-27269-0

Nelson, a professor of history at the College of William and Mary, analyzes the financial crises that propelled the economic evolution of the United States from the earliest years of the republic through the early 20th century, explaining that virtually every one (save the Great Depression) was propelled by excessive consumer debt. His lucid depictions of busted bonds, currency spirals, and foreign trade imbalances ably demonstrate the role of “the farmers, artisans, slaveholders, shopkeepers, and wholesalers whose borrowing had fueled the booms and busts,” while charting the evolution of the country from a borrowing nation for a century and a half after independence to a world lender after WWI. Nelson is unsparing in accounts of the shaky fiscal infrastructure through the 19th century, observing that the postrevolutionary economy was based on spending binges for fashionable “monkey jackets,” government land sales, and supplying cotton to British mills, the consequences of which devastated consumers, small businessmen, major financial institutions, and eventually the nation as it plunged toward civil war. This astute account of economic disruption and disaster through the Great Depression is a useful and engaging perspective on our propensity for repeating our financial mistakes. Agent: Deidre Mullane, Mullane Literary. (Sept.)