Formal book reviews in academic journals can often be quite dry. The majority of them, it seems, are more descriptive than analytical and written carefully so as not to offend. Occasionally one comes across a blistering, scathing critique written by a senior scholar who, cushioned by tenure, can afford to ruffle feathers, but these are rare. Because the medium for this review is my own personal blog, and not an academic journal, I will be fair, but will also call things out directly and honestly, at least as I see them.
Author Paul Kahan has written a straightforward and accessible book entitled The Bank War, published by Westholme Press, in 2015. An adjunct history instructor at Ohlone College, Kahan promises “a fresh synthesis of the Bank War that reexamines this critical moment in US history in light of current events” (viii). The Bank War, as Kahan argues, exposed the inherent conflicts between democratic accountability, represented by Andrew Jackson, and the non-partisan technocratic expertise of Nicholas Biddle, the president of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS) (xi). Related to this were crucial constitutional debates over the power of the presidency and the federal government’s authority to charter a public-private corporation at the national level. Kahan demonstrates a competent understanding of arcane financial principles that are often hard to grasp and has picked up on many of the nuances of Jacksonian era politics. There are elements of encyclopedic knowledge on display and helpful biographical details.
Because The Bank War is a derivative work built primarily on secondary sources and intended for a lay audience, some may downplay the critiques I am about to offer. Had Kahan sought to write a scholarly work for a more specialized audience, I would have raised several important issues, some of them more serious than others. One subject he might have explored more deeply is Biddle’s relationship with the press and members of Congress. The Bank’s use of its own funds to bribe newspaper editors and lawmakers was one of the Jacksonians’ most persistent rallying cries and the subject of an intensely partisan and prolonged congressional investigation in the spring of 1832 that the author mentions only briefly (101). This critique is not a selfish plug for my own research interests—it actually goes to the heart of what the anti-BUS Jacksonians meant about democratic accountability, one of the key themes in Kahan’s work. In addition, there are times when the book’s chronology loses focus. If the author was consciously prioritizing thematic coherence over a strict, day-to-day chronology, as one presumes, then by all means, go ahead, but at least alert the reader that this was a conscious choice, not an inadvertent one. Somewhat oddly, the first third of the book provides background and describes events that predate Jackson’s inauguration, which is typically the starting point for most Bank War narratives. In chapter 3, Kahan begins to drift around quite a bit, making it difficult for the reader to discern a causal narrative (58-63). After contextualizing the Bank War with the petticoat affair and Maysville road veto in the spring of 1830, for reasons that are not entirely clear Kahan shifts abruptly to the fall of 1831, where he discusses the famous duel between Thomas Biddle, Nicholas’s brother, and anti-BUS Representative Spencer Pettis of Missouri. No citations are provided for this duel. Then, inexplicably, he resumes his exposition of events in 1830 (76-81).
Kahan is principally concerned with how conflicts over debt and finance played out in American politics. To this end, he has written competently, but it is worth noting that the direction of the field has become decidedly more international in scope in the last few decades. This explains why almost every job ad on hnet, even for positions in political history, usually include a global or Atlantic World dimension. My own thoughts are that there is nothing inherently wrong with choosing to focus exclusively on domestic politics, but the topics that Kahan covers have important international considerations that should not be ignored. Kahan discusses two economic contractions—Biddle’s Panic of 1833-34 and the Panic of 1837—but other than briefly mentioning “developments in Europe” (152), Kahan has nothing to say about the Bank of England, cotton prices, money markets, global movements of silver linking Mexico with China, and Anglo-American merchant banking houses like Baring Brothers. All of these factors are essential to a comprehensive understanding of the various panics of the antebellum era. When writing about the Panic of 1837, Kahan states, “This economic panic, which started in Manhattan, quickly spread across the country,” (145) as if to profess a nonchalant certainty about a historically complex and multilayered event. Experts are far more equivocal. One might just as easily locate the origins of this panic with the failure of the New Orleans-based cotton commission house, Hermann, Briggs & Company, as Jessica Lepler does, or with London money markets.
Then there are long and detailed passages that do not have citations. I cannot help but think that, again, this relates to the type of work he set out to write, his audience, and the press. Before reading this book, I had never heard of Westholme Publishing, a small, Pennsylvania-based company that, according to its own website, operates as “an independent publisher of trade books.” These weren’t the type of random typos that appear in even the most polished of books. They occurred repeatedly and lasted for several paragraphs. They included detailed facts, figures, dates, and dollar amounts that could not in any way be construed as common knowledge (2-7; 11-17; 23-26; 39-41; 96-97). In some lengthy sections there is only one footnote to one page of one book; in others, there is a condensed summary of other authors’ work without citation, and at others, one can only guess. No omnibus footnotes alert the reader to the key works the author relied upon to write certain sections. One suspects that a higher standard of rigor would apply to publishing a scholarly work with a university press.
In far too many cases The Bank War essentially repackages the work of previous studies—principally Thomas Payne Govan’s Nicholas Biddle (1959) and Edward Kaplan’s The Bank of the United States and the American Economy (1999). Govan and Kaplan, analytically speaking, do a lot of the heavy lifting for this book. Out of 305 total footnotes, 95, or 31%, cite just these two works (161-170. Calculations performed by reviewer). This not only suggests unoriginal work, but is doubly problematic because Kaplan’s 1999 synthetic work rested heavily on the work of previous monographs. In relying on Kaplan so much, Kahan has unwittingly created an added layer of distance between himself and the original primary sources. He has also assumed implicitly that Kaplan had gotten everything right, leaving no opportunity to challenge his conclusions or complicate the received wisdom that has been passed down over generations. Almost all of the quotes in this book have appeared in previous monographs and there is little evidence that Kahan conducted archival research. This would seem to undermine the claim of providing a “fresh” approach. And when Kahan argues that he seeks to reexamine the Bank War “in light of current events,” here, too, he does not follow through with any depth. There are brief nods to the Great Recession of 2008, the Federal Reserve, and some Americans’ skepticism of paper money, but these points are underdeveloped. They seem relevant only in the broadest sense, ignoring how politics, society, and even central banking have evolved in complex ways during the last 180 years, rendering many historical analogies tenuous at best. Today’s Federal Reserve, with its ability to significantly alter the money supply through open market operations, including its recent purchase of approximately $4 trillion of government assets in an unprecedented and yet largely successful move known as quantitative easing, is a very different kind of central bank than Biddle’s institution, which was constrained by an international specie standard.
A few final points…Kahan has published five books since 2008, a relatively short span of time in which some authors may struggle to produce one monograph. He seems to have carved out a niche in quickly publishing derivative works that chronicle key events in the history of nineteenth-century Pennsylvania. As of this writing, there are 52 reviews of The Bank War on Amazon, the overwhelming majority of which are glowing. Many of these reviews were written within a few days of each other, lack substance, and contain only a few lines. There are countless works of terrific scholarship that barely get any reviews at all on Amazon. One commenter suggested that the reviews were coerced—that is, Kahan assigned his book to his class and asked his students to write positive reviews—which seems like a definite possibility. If that is the case, Kahan is giving us a really hard sell; too hard, in fact. However clear his writing may be, in the end the book lacks the type of deep expertise that can only be accumulated with several years of time.