One Nation Under Gold is a book about the role of gold in American economic history by James Ledbetter. The book details how gold has shaped the American psyche and played a role in many debates and power struggles from the founding of the United States until the current age.

At the beginning of the book, there is a helpful timeline of many of the most important events that Ledbetter discusses. A short preface states the case to be made: that monetary gold has many qualities that good money should have, but cannot fulfill the ultimate hopes of its advocates. The introduction begins with both positive and negative contemporary commentary on the California Gold Rush, then briefly discusses the history of gold and the human relationship to it in the New World, particularly the United States.

The first chapter begins with George Washington’s woes with paper money during the American Revolution. Ledbetter uses this example to show how the Founding Fathers came to hate paper money. The role of debt in encouraging states to ratify the Constitution is mentioned. The search for effective currency in the 18th and 19th centuries is discussed at length, which included foreign coins, gold, silver, and paper currencies theoretically (but sometimes fraudulently) backed by metals. The correlation between monetary views and one’s opinion concerning the size and scope of government (which continues to the present day) is noted, with centralized paper money being associated with big government and decentralized metallic money being associated with small government. After discussing Andrew Jackson’s battle to defeat central banking and the Panic of 1837, Ledbetter returns to the California Gold Rush and its implications, including environmental and human exploitation as well as the Panic of 1857. With the Civil War and the issuing of greenbacks to fund it, a great failure of the gold standard is demonstrated that will echo through the rest of the book: it would stop wars and expansive social programs if it were strictly adhered to, but political leaders will always find some workaround.

Chapter 2 covers the time from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age. Ledbetter begins with the market manipulations of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, alongside President Ulysses Grant’s role in the affair. The differences in opinion between North and South over paper money and compensation for the Civil War are also highlighted. Ledbetter notes an important lesson from these years: a polity that values multiple currencies will create a market of exchange between them, and huge swings in those markets will eventually cause social unrest. The debate over the monetization of silver and its role in financial downturns for the rest of the 19th century are discussed next, but the decade of the 1880s is skipped over. The chapter concludes with the Panic of 1893 and the near-disappearance of US government gold reserves in 1895, which was resolved with the help of J.P. Morgan.

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