Wednesday, May 30, 2012

David Liss, The Whiskey Rebels (2008)

At the dawn of the American republic, the new nation was in a precarious financial condition.  The nation was indebted to France for financing the rebellious colonies during the revolutionary war, and the States were indebted to the soldiers of the continental army for war pay they never received.  What's the solution to reducing the national debt?  Why taxes, of course:  in this case, sin taxes on the production of whiskey that agitated a minority living in the woods of western Pennsylvania, which prompted the President of the United States, George Washington, to get on his horse as commander and chief, head west toward Pittsburgh and suppress the agitators.  And simultaneously, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed the creation of the Bank of the United States, partly owned by the United States, but further capitalized by private investment through the issuance of stock. 

If you believe that 21st century American politics and finance are riddled with corruption now, if you believe that taxes are not the price we pay for civilization, than not much has changed in 220 years or so since the era described in David Liss' work of historical fiction, The Whiskey Rebels.  While the Whiskey Rebellion sets the stage for Liss' storyline, this novel is thematically a continuation of Liss' interest in insider trading and market manipulation covered in the early London stock exchanges in The Paper Conspiracy.  (See November 16, 2011 post). As in The Paper Conspiracy, many of the protagonists are real, historical figures, and the story is at its core true. The key difference between the stock exchanges of early 18th century London and late 18th century Philadelphia and New York is that stocks are traded in coffee houses in London and taverns in New York and Philadelphia.   William Duer, a financial speculator, who caused the nation's first financial panic by trying to manipulate the market for government securities and bank stocks is a prominent figure here.  Alexander Hamilton, masterfully covered in Ron Chernow's recent biography, is more of a mystery in this story.

The Whiskey Rebels is a good read, but the interview with David Liss in the back of the paperback version of this novel is most interesting.  "What I think about the function of this historical novel," Liss says, "I tend to think about what it can do that history cannot.  I think if you want simply to learn about the root causes of the Whiskey Rebellion or the Panic of 1792, there are numerous excellent works that you can reference that can provide all the important information you need.  On the other hand, fiction can attempt to recreate the human experience of these events, the emotion context and specific subjectivity of living through such pivotal moments.  It is all guesswork, of course.  We can never really know how people in the past experienced their lives, but it is great fun, and interesting to try."  This statement speaks volumes about how the Bible was written.  (See May 22, 2011 post).

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