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Face Value

The Entwined Histories of Money and Race in America

Face Value

The Entwined Histories of Money and Race in America

From colonial history to the present, Americans have passionately, even violently, debated the nature and the character of money. They have painted it and sung songs about it, organized political parties around it, and imprinted it with the name of God—all the while wondering: is money a symbol of the value of human work and creativity, or a symbol of some natural, intrinsic value?

In Face Value, Michael O’Malley provides a deep history and a penetrating analysis of American thinking about money and the ways that this ambivalence unexpectedly intertwines with race. Like race, money is bound up in questions of identity and worth, each a kind of shorthand for the different values of two similar things. O’Malley illuminates how these two socially constructed hierarchies are deeply rooted in American anxieties about authenticity and difference.

In this compelling work of cultural history, O’Malley interprets a stunning array of historical sources to evaluate the comingling of ideas about monetary value and social distinctions. More than just a history, Face Value offers us a new way of thinking about the present culture of coded racism, gold fetishism, and economic uncertainty.

272 pages | 20 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Black Studies

Culture Studies

History: American History


"Michael O’Malley’s witty, insightful Face Value traces the American quest for a stable source of value in a society that prized freedom.Through deft analysis of a wide range of sources, O’Malley shows that arguments over money and arguments over race have had much in common, and indeed, have often intersected in the United States in surprising and disturbing ways—even now. Most important is O’Malley’s contention that the monetary chaos of the nineteenth century, which has bewildered so many students of American history, turned whiteness into a crucial sign of individual worth."

Adam Rothman, Georgetown University

“This is a ‘big idea’ book that no one but Michael O’Malley could even have thought of—much less pulled off with such nuance and clarity. From the wampum that sustained the Pilgrims to the gold fever that accompanied the Obama presidency, this swift-moving, plain-talking book explains how ‘the money question’ and ‘the race question’ are really two sides of the same coin. Grounded in smartly told stories about fascinating historical characters, and written in a conversational style that is wry but never cynical, Face Value is worth its weight in ideas.”

Scott A. Sandage, author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America

 “O’Malley’s new book is a magnificent piece of scholarship on a topic that is at once timely and surprising. O’Malley shows our twin national obsessions—money and race—dancing together across economic policy reports, the pages of literary fiction, the stage, the screen, and the airwaves. I recommend this book wholeheartedly.”

Benjamin Reiss, Emory University

Face Value is a provocative, imaginative, and gracefully written work of cultural history, one that unearths hitherto unimagined connections between markets, money, and race. In the process, Michael O’Malley manages to show how currency, which historians and economists too often treat as timeless and neutral, has for centuries been entangled with the institution and legacy of American slavery.”

Stephen Mihm, University of Georgia

Face Value extends a powerful tradition of resisting the reduction of economic life to material interest. Stripped of the initial article’s telling invocation of Foucault’s The Order of Things, O’Malley’s long-awaited monograph aspires to do more than explore resemblances between historical discourses.”

Journal of Social History

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: This New Black Flesh Coin

Chapter 2: Banking on Slavery

Chapter 3: Rags, Blacking, and Paper Soldiers

Chapter 4: Gold Money and the Constitution of Man

Chapter 5: A Bank in Human Form

Epilogue: Words and Bonds



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