Rueben James: Even the footnotes are worth reading

Don’t think of this as American economics history. I never had any interest in economics, but I’ve always loved history, and this history book is a page-turner.

Basing his history on primary sources, Chaitkin is a superb teacher, showing how capitalism driven by greed produced British colonialism and the slave trade, while capitalism guided by moral principle–aimed at the betterment of humankind worldwide–is the engine that made the United States the wealthiest, most productive nation in history.

This book is easy to read because it’s not a story of competing philosophies but of competing individuals with very different loyalties. And it’s lean. Chaitkin packs it with first-person quotes from letters and other sources, fully documented. The footnotes, dovetailed into the bottom of the pages, are full of their own relevant content (don’t skip them!).

What I enjoyed the most is the way he highlights the connections between people. Did anyone else know that Henry Clay was the ward of a collaborator of Benjamin Franklin’s, who (Clay) then taught law in Lexington, KY’s Transylvania University, and that one of his students was Robert Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s future father-in-law? This book similarly connects many people horizontally. But the story also runs vertically through the generations, like pushing tree roots through layers of American history, joining us to the bedrock of our founding fathers.

Chaitkin has even gotten me interested in the economics! I highly recommend this volume, and I’m looking forward to Chaitkin publishing Volume 2.

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