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This book reads like a collection of magazine articles. The chapters focus on different personalities or events that shaped (or epitomized) Wall Street over the last two centuries. While there are some attempts to link subjects to their past (notably in the development of rules and regulations), the book reads more like a collection from various time periods rather than a synthesized whole.
What the reader gets are interesting snapshots. And Gordon does make them interesting. Always an engaging writer, he mixes the right amount of fact and commentary to keep a credible story moving along at a nice pace. The author does justice to many fascinating personalities (Hamilton, Fisk, Gould, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Greene, Kennedy, Milkin and Boesky), and events (panics, depression, corners, theft, corruption, manipulation) that have shaped the American financial system since the dawn of our Republic. The chapters are just long enough to gain an appreciation for the subject at hand, but not too long as to bore.
This book is not a study or treatise on financial products or their development. These are mentioned in passing so as to give familiarity to the reader. But, do not expect to learn about how stocks, derivatives or mutual funds (etc., etc.) work in detail here.
While this is not an in depth study of the Street, it is an excellent and engaging survey that will interest the general reader.
Mr. Gordon covers 350 years of history in just 300 pages, however, don't let the title fool you, it really only covers Wall Street until about 1995, not 2000 (a minor quibble). The book contains many interesting stories along the way such as how Chase Manhattan started off as a water company and why Merrill Lynch was named after two brokers, not one (I didn't realize that).
As always no book on the history of Wall Street would be complete without the Erie Railroad, the "Scarlet Women of Wall Street." Mr. Gordon relives the Erie tale with relish! I could almost see Daniel Drew laughing as he printed additional shares of Erie stock as fast as Commodore Vanderbilt could buy them. The rest of the players of Wall Street take their turn in the book, including J.P. Morgan, Fisk and Gould, Joe Kennedy, Alexander Hamilton, and a few women such as Hetty Green also appear.
Gordon takes time to explain many concepts about how the stock market came to be today including stories on the first corner in Wall Street history to the most recent, the Hunt's brothers attempt to corner the silver market in 1980. Mr. Gordon also explains that each time a player uses the market to their advantage, the invisible hand of Adam Smith pushes the market to correct the "wrongs."
Though it is not one of Mr. Gordon's main points in the book, he does point out throughout the book that the "Robber Barons" of old had many friends/allies in government that turned a blind eye to their schemes.
This book is filled with the history of people of Wall Street, not numbers! Pick it up, you'll find that Mr. Gordon's cornered the market on the history of Wall Street!
The book maintains a quick pace, touching on all of the major events, firms and people that have led to Wall Street's emergence as financier for the world. Yet despite its quick pace the treatment of each of these characters and defining moments is surprisingly deep. I was surprised by the accolades that Mr. Gordon gave to Alexander Hamilton, and how much he had to do with helping establish the US, and correspondingly Wall Street, as a financial powerhouse. (So impressed I read one of his biographies by McDonald.) The theme of the book is the increasing potency of this small street, how it goes from being the financial focus of New York City to New York State, to the Northeast, to the US and finally to the entire world. Wall Street no long represents a few hundred feet of not even water front property, it has come to represent the very essence of finance, not just in the US, but throughout the world. Mr. Gordon has done an excellent job of walking the reader through this fascinating story.
I highly recommend this book.
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These 47 articles, gathered from Gordon's 10 years as an American Heritage columnist, cover the post-Revolutionary period through the 1950s. Each article is written, as the title portrays, from an American perspective. Mr. Gordon talks, for example, about the railroads and the characters behind them in the American boom but rarely does he specifically address who invented a product / technology, unless an American did. Additionally, I found that little attention was given to air conditioning, as it has impacted migration patterns dramatically in the U.S.
There is the story of King Cotton and how the gin made it profitable. Gordon reports on the California Gold Rush, the first television syndication (that's how Desi Arnaz earns a cover picture on an economic history book), war economies, the decision to build the World Trade towers (an eerie story to read today), steamboat races, railroad competition and more, each in pithy, five-page synopses of major historic studies or records. Brief as they are, there is not always a full story, but the histories leave the read impressed and engaged.
Gordon highlights well-known phrases, e.g., "The business of America is business," "The public be damned!" and explains how they came about (and the myths around same). Before we spoke of people "going postal", Gordon writes about the now-lapsed term, "postalization", another idea entirely.
In "The American Game" he shows how baseball is unique in that it was a business and not just a sport from its early years. A strange business, yes, where today "semiserfdom" of ballplayers has produced average annual salaries of $2.38 million and an industry prone to "work stoppages" and seemingly on the brink of disaster.
The better stories are of the visionaries who made and managed business in America, including the man who spent his personal fortune to make milk safe to drink for millions and the unsung heroes who saved businesses from failure. This is a good education for those who don't understand or who doubt the power of free markets, an idea whose time has come, or simply the American dream as it has been lived.
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This is no longer the case. A tax cut, the war on terrorism, and a slowdown in the economy have combined to push the U.S. government's outlays above its revenues. They have also made this book -- "Hamilton's Blessing" -- relevant again.
Gordon's book is two things: 1) a basic history describing the twists and turns of U.S. fiscal policy over the last two hundred-plus years and 2) a political tract condemning the latest turn U.S. fiscal policy has taken since the Great Society.
By combining the two, Gordon seeks to show that the most recent practice of U.S. fiscal policy -- that of habitually running deficits in peacetime -- is not only unprecedented in U.S. history, but also, more importantly, unsupported by any sound theory of economics.
"Hamilton's Blessing" is well-written and interesting. The book is only slightly marred by a lack of detail in some areas. How exactly does a large public debt hurt your average citizen and by how much? We never find out.
Gordon also should have kept his own political bent out of the book. Among other things, he spends three pages in a less than 200-page book detailing Jack Kemp's personal and political history, including his football career. All very interesting, but not really relevant to the history of the U.S. debt.
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Author John Steele Gordon tells the tale with easily readable prose and superb storytelling. Along the way, he enhances the historical memory of Cyrus Field, the visionary entreprenuer whose single-minded devotion to the project kept it going despit many setbacks. Field's project was the perfect marriage of private and public enterprize in an effort that greatly bennefitted both. Field's story is as interesting as that of the cable itself.
The one main drawback to the book is that its brevity doesn't seem befitting of its subject matter, even more so since Gordon throws in a number of anecdotes that are sidelights to the main story. He commits a major factual error with one of the side stories, stating inaccurately that General Zachary Taylor led the American Army to Mexico City during the Mexican War when in fact it was General Winfield Scott who accomplished that task.
Overall, despite a few flaws, "A Thread Across the Ocean" is a worthwhile read that will be of primary interest to history buffs.
We take for granted the fact that when the Queen Mother dies or the stock market in Germany drops that Americas with TVs on will known sooner than Europeans who have the set off. We take it so much for granted the seeming necessity of the global communications that it is hard to believe how few people embraced this idea after the invention of the telegraph. It was the vision of one man to span the ocean and it took him twelve years to do it.
Short on technical details and long on profiles of the men involved in the project; this is a book for those who enjoy history more than those who enjoy technology. But both groups will come away with respect for those who dreamed big dreams and made them realities.
The hero is Cyrus Field, a man of enthusiasm, determination, and optimism who would not let his cable idea die. The appeal of the story is eventual success despite many heartbreaking failures, but as Gordon demonstrates, the failures were mined for lessons learned, and each subsequent attempt to lay the cable was a bit cleverer, a bit more comprehensive. There were broken cables, unexpected storms, and suspicion of sabotage in the different attempts. The public was wild with optimism and then wild with mockery when the cables failed. One laid in 1858 actually worked to send a message from Queen Victoria, but slowly, and then went forever dead. The final success in 1866 came in large part because of the gigantic ship _Great Eastern_, the final project of the brilliant engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The huge ship was a bit of a white elephant, but was the only vessel capable of carrying all that cable almost three thousand miles at 3,575 pounds per mile. The coiling it into different levels of the great ship without kinks was an engineering feat in itself. The ship also took advantage of the perfected paying-out machinery and brake, developed by a wealthy amateur tinkerer, a device so successful that it is still used in laying cable today.
There is no real suspense to this story, of course; Gordon has, however, written an exciting tribute to Field, the other entrepreneurs, and the technicians who put an exceedingly difficult project into action. The cable, after many attempts, many years, and many dollars, worked and became indispensable. Two weeks after the cable was open for business, for instance, the market quotations in New York and London became equalized, as they could act together. The _Great Eastern_ went on to lay five other cables, and by 1900 there were fifteen, with competition between the firms that ran them. Wireless telegraphy, radio, and satellite communication have not made the cables obsolete; most transoceanic communication is still by reliable strands of wire, or of fiber-optics, beneath the sea. _A Thread Across the Ocean_ vividly tells an important and overlooked story of perseverance and triumph.
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