schama on banks


Unaccustomed as they are to being told to stand in the corner wearing dunces’ hats, American bankers, so it’s been reported, are getting grouchy about the “stress tests” inflicted on them by the Treasury as a condition of receiving bail-out funds. They have, it’s rumoured, been “pushing back” against restrictions on executive pay. Beggars, it seems, can be choosers. But before they get just a bit above themselves, perhaps they should ponder the long history of the love-hate relationship between banking and government in America. They could do worse than to take a look at the $20 bill. For there, breaking into the space separating the words “Federal” from “Reserve” is the cresting mane of Andrew Jackson, the most hair-conscious president of the United States. Aside from cultivating his pompadour as the insignia of a free frontier spirit, his locks tied in an eelskin, the seventh US president was also the sworn enemy of paper currency and central banking. Jackson, who was in the White House from 1829-1837, was a new brand of politician in American life. No one would confuse him with the Virginian gentlemen-planters who had dominated high office in the early republic. He had been Indian fighter, scourge of the British and darling of the frontier crowds. But what really got his dander up was the Bank of the United States, the institution granted the monopoly to print paper money. The “Monster”, he declared at the height of his presidential knock-down battle with its president Nicholas Biddle, “wants to kill me but I will kill it”.

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