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The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss

Posted by Sherry on 12/29/2008 in Adult Fiction, General, US History Project |

Financiers and businessmen blackmail the U.S. government into covering their poor business decisions and bad debts as government officials, especially the Secretary of the Treasury, fear the collapse of the entire U.S. economy if banks and financial speculators are allowed to reap the consequences of their bad gambles. The government spends money that it doesn’t have, and taxes the poor who can least afford to pay, for the benefit of greedy rich men who are said to be the only bulwark that is propping up the U.S. economy.

It sounds like the lead into an analysis of the U.S. economy at the end of the year 2008, doesn’t it? And yet it’s a summary of the plot of the novel The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss, published in 2008, but set in the late 1700’s. The Treasury Secretary is not Henry Paulson, but rather Alexander Hamilton, the first to hold that office. The greedy speculators are not Wall Street gamblers and bankers and auto industry tycoons, but rather investors in the new Bank of the United States and land speculators who sell worthless Western lands in exchange for government securities and promissory notes that the fledgling government gave to soldiers of the Continental Army in place of the money that it didn’t have at the end of the Revolutionary War.

Based on true historical events and peopled actual historical characters, Liss’s novel was both an education in the history in the time period and an occasion for me to think about the parallels that exist between that time of economic turmoil and our own financial difficulties today. Just as there is now, there was a contingent who said that the government should let the financial markets do as they would, let the banks and financiers fail or bankrupt themselves, and deal with the consequences afterwards. “Better anarchy than an unjust nation that masquerades as a beacon of righteousness. That would be worse than outright tyranny.” Others said the result would be “the collapse of our economic system.” “Banks will fail, so merchants will fail, and then farms. And then starvation. That is the best we can hope for.”

It’s the same argument we’re having over two hundred years later, and the corrupt forces of financial chicanery have us in their grip just as surely as the wheelers and dealers of the American republic had the nation in a financial panic in 1792. Only the names and some of the details have changed. I’m amazed to think that this book was written before our current financial and political difficulties came to a head, and the parallels to today’s news in the book are unplanned and all the more striking for being so.

As for the novel itself, Mr. Liss is a decent writer, has a good handle on the setting and circumstances of the early years of our American experiment. The book is quite violent, presumably because as the author says, “Conditions on the western frontier were every bit as brutal as I describe, and probably more so.” The main characters in the novel are Ethan Saunders, a drunken and disgraced ex-Continental Army spy, and Joan Maycott, a settler with her husband in the wilds of western Pennsylvania. These two tell the story, each from his or her own point of view, in alternating chapters, and the first intriguing problem that the reader is set is to figure out how their stories are intertwined, if they are. As the two protagonists’ paths do cross in Philadelphia, the next puzzle is to find out which has the upper hand and which will win the battle of wits that becomes a fight for the survival of the newborn United States of America.

Anyone who is interested in the history of the Republic or in financial crises or in the arguments for and against government intervention in the financial world will find this book enlightening and absorbing. If you don’t mind some violence and a little bit of bad language, not too much, and if the subject interests you, take a look. I like my economic and political lessons in a fictional package, so this book was just the ticket, even though I’m still not sure what to think of the government’s robbing the poor to bail out the rich supposedly in order to save both from irreparable financial ruin. It’s a conundrum that I can’t quite resolve.

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