Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich by Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen

Wright and Cowen capture the grand visions and often bitter public disappointments of Alexander Hamilton and other early financiers. In 1825, for example, Nicholas Biddle won acclaim for averting a financial panic by extending credit through the Second Bank of the United States. But Andrew Jackson subsequently fought Biddle’s efforts to renew the bank’s federal charter after announcing that he stood against “any prostitution of our Government to the advancement of the few at the expense of the many.” Jackson succeeded, and a depression ensued in 1837.

Morgan: American Financier by Jean Strouse

The prize-winning biography of America’s greatest banker, J.P. Morgan, describes how his acumen helped bring order and transparency to rampant, and often unscrupulous, practices on Wall Street. He saved the U.S. government from collapse in the 1890s and prevented a meltdown in 1907. Morgan’s firm injected $21 million into the banking system that year, and Lord Rothschild in London praised “the unselfish, remedial action of Mr. Morgan.” In 1913, however, the 76-year-old Morgan was brought before a House subcommittee investigating an alleged “money trust” that controlled American finances. He was humiliated on the stand by a clever committee lawyer and died less than a year later.

Mellon: An American Life by David Cannadine

Cannadine traces the storied career of Andrew Mellon, who got his start in his father’s Pittsburgh bank and built a financial empire while navigating the shoals of national depressions in the 1870s and 1890s. Named secretary of the treasury by Warren Harding in 1921, Mellon lobbied for lower income taxes and slightly higher corporate taxes and was widely credited for helping to spur an economic boom. Yet following the crash of 1929, he was not only tarred by President Franklin Roosevelt as an “economic royalist,” but also prosecuted for tax fraud. Although Mellon was exonerated of any crime, his reputation never recovered.

A.P. Giannini and the Bank of America by Gerald D. Nash

An Italian immigrant who left eighth grade to work for his stepfather’s produce company, Amadeo Peter Giannini went on to found the Bank of America in 1930. Nash argues that one of his secrets of success was his willingness to reach out to small depositors and make loans to average Americans. During the New Deal he locked horns with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, who worried about his lending standards and his ambition to expand Bank of America into a national institution. Giannini won out, but when his derogatory remarks about Morgenthau’s Jewish heritage were publicized he traveled a path well-worn by many successful bankers—admired one day, demonized the next.


Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here