It seems like I’ve wanted to read this forever, but it’s been just left on my tbr wish list for no good reason – perhaps the length(!). But then it went on sale – okay fine! Yay! Done. Now, with a 20th Anniversary edition, I actually got to read it. (lol)
** If you’re interested in this kind of history I highly recommend this book because it’s a thorough, wonderfully well researched and fascinating account of a seriously complex subject. Also, it’s amazingly great fun to read. **
I’ve enjoyed several of Chernow’s books TITAN: The Life of John D. Rockefeller (1998), ALEXANDER HAMILTON (2004), and WASHINGTON: A Life (2010) (my review), and I also enjoy reading economics in general as well as history – I just try to keep up – I’m a layperson buff, not an academic reader, but that said, this book is among the best of the lot.
The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance
by Ron Chernow
Grove Press / 2010 / 848 pages
read by Robertson Dean: 34h 36m
rating: 10 / history-bio-economics
(both read and listened)
THE HOUSE OF MORGAN is a long book at 848 pages, 719 of which are narrative, but Robertson Dean does a wonderful job of narrating. I read along in the Kindle version as well, but still … it’s although it’s really long I don’t remember ever being bored.
It’s also a very thorough book which sticks to its point – this is finance history – The House of Morgan and modern finance. It’s not political history, not military history, not social history, although there are elements of all of those.
It’s also somewhat biographical in terms of the main players – the Morgan banking men who influenced American history for about a century of mostly phenomenal growth but including a series of serious Panics and, of course, the Great Depression as well as World Wars I and II and the War in Vietnam – all the major changes in the world affected banking, too.
During this time the House of Morgan went from a quiet, sedate traditional bank for merchants to being an “American” bank and then expanding into an International behemoth with subsidiaries and offshoots and investments sprinkled all over.
If anything Chernow is a wee bit nostalgic for the days prior to Glass-Stegall and the great bank splits although he certainly understands the rationale and the motives for the law and doesn’t anticipate good things with it’s partial repeal – although it does seem like a cycle here with the banks continuing to come out on top in some way (but what would we do without them – and they do have to make money in a capitalist scheme of things).
I used the Kindle version to clarify some passages with a reread as well as to check notes and bibliographical info, and I’m always curious about visuals – graphs, photos, maps, etc. But my eyes get tired more easily than in years past so … I also just simply read along with the Audible version for great stretches.
On to the book: the time frame is generally 1838- 1989 – about 150 years split into 3 parts, I. The Baronial Age, 1838-1913; II. The Diplomatic Age, 1913-1948, and; III. The Casino Age, 1949-1989.
After a brief Foreward and Prologue, which are fascinating in themselves and lay the groundwork for the book (which is what they should do), the story starts with one George Peabody, an American banker in London, building a merchant banking business and eventually taking the budding Junius S. Morgan, from a wealthy Massachusetts family and a budding banker, under his wing and decades later, died, essentially leaving his business to Junius, father of John Pierpont and grandfather of John Pierpont (J.P.)
The J.P. Morgan Company, sometimes referred to as the “House of Morgan“or simply “Morgan,” was a predecessor of three of the largest banking institutions in the world, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank (via Morgan, Grenfell & Co.). It was also involved in the formation of Drexel Burnham Lambert.
We then read about the growth of the conservative and very elite company and its insider everything from clients and hiring to influence on railroads to start with Then it expanded into government lending, munitions, international banking, mergers, take-overs, trusts, movies, tobacco, newspapers and whatever else.
Of course along the way there were always setbacks like tariffs and banking regulations and Congressional Hearings and some scandals like embezzlement. Sometimes the public ignored the big banks other times they became quite upset. And some presidents were totally business oriented, others were more populist. As regulations increased, new schemes for developing capital were invented. Morgan banks of one form or another, seem to have been involved in most all of the big financial “situations” of the 20th century.
Scattered through the financial history of the House of Morgan and its offshoots are brief biographical sketches of of the activities, personalities, quirks and of the Morgan family leaders as well as the later non-Morgan family directors.
Chernow’s narrative is great and I have to say it, spellbinding, for the first two-thirds or so. While it starts out about the original Morgan bank and the Morgans who ran it, after the splitting of The House of Morgan into separate entities (Glass-Stegall) and then to more and smaller pieces due to domestic and international regulations, it gets a bit choppy. I suppose that’s the nature of the story and it’s a testament to the Chernow’s organizational skill that he keeps it as clear as he does.