America's First Bank
America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve
by Roger Lowenstein
Published in October 2015
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
After reading more conspiratorial accounts of the creation of the Federal Reserve, I decided to read this book to see what the mainstream historical account has recorded about the Federal Reserve.
As a libertarian who is skeptical of central banking I was very biased against this book, especially when I first picked it up. Despite this, I quickly found myself rapidly engaged and forgot my ideological bias because the book was so well written. The writing style it is vivid and picturesque. The sentences are short, logical, and easy to follow. The book is very well paced: there is little repetition, and Lowenstein never fails at keeping the reader’s attention.
Much to my incredible shock, I found that all the facts which had been outlined in the conspiratorial accounts were confirmed by the mainstream history! Makes me wonder if the conspiratorial writers are onto something.
In fact, the only main difference in the accounts is the tone in which they were written. One book will say “the conspiring bankers met in secret to discuss the creation of the Fed” and this one will say “the heroic bankers met in secret to discuss the creation of the Fed.”
For someone who read this book right after the more conspiratorial accounts, this was particularly fascinating. Lowenstein’s account explicitly mentions the Creature from Jekyll Island and other populist manifestos and does a good job of refuting them.
I found the way he depicted characters such as corrupt Senator Nelson Aldridge particularly interesting. Griffon describes him as a cartoonish and corrupt and evil Republican senator - I can just imagine a top hat wearing buffoon in a turn of the century political advertisement. The image Lowenstein paints is far fairer; I especially found that the account of Aldridge’s illness towards the end of his life gave him a very human character.
To me the most interesting part of the book are the early chapters which detail the world of private money that existed in the United States before the creation of the Federal Reserve. I drew many interesting mental analogies to Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.
My 8th grade history textbook made that volatile time period sound like the epitome of free market capitalism. Murray Rothbard makes that time period sound like a utopia of price stability. The world Lowenstein describes is far less cartoonish than the world’s of both my 8th grade history textbook or the libertarian paradise. The pre-Fed United States monetary system was hyper regulated and excruciatingly corrupt. It was dysfunctional, and the centralization of the Federal Reserve had incredibly beneficial for the economy.
Overall, I recommend this book in certain circumstances (4/5 on my score metric). That said, the topic might not be the most interesting for a mainstream audience which hasn’t already spent significant amounts of time researching central banking. If you already understand the Federal Reserve or want to improve your grasp on American monetary policy, I strongly recommend this book.
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