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A Hercules in the Cradle

War, Money, and the American State, 1783–1867

Explores the origin and evolution of American public finance and shows how the nation’s rise to great-power status in the nineteenth century rested on its ability to go into debt.

Two and a half centuries after the American Revolution the United States stands as one of the greatest powers on earth and the undoubted leader of the western hemisphere. This stupendous evolution was far from a foregone conclusion at independence. The conquest of the North American continent required violence, suffering, and bloodshed. It also required the creation of a national government strong enough to go to war against, and acquire territory from, its North American rivals.

In A Hercules in the Cradle, Max M. Edling argues that the federal government’s abilities to tax and borrow money, developed in the early years of the republic, were critical to the young nation’s ability to wage war and expand its territory. He traces the growth of this capacity from the time of the founding to the aftermath of the Civil War, including the funding of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Edling maintains that the Founding Fathers clearly understood the connection between public finance and power: a well-managed public debt was a key part of every modern state. Creating a debt would always be a delicate and contentious matter in the American context, however, and statesmen of all persuasions tried to pay down the national debt in times of peace. 

336 pages | 10 line drawings, 18 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2014

American Beginnings, 1500-1900

Economics and Business: Economics--History

History: American History, Military History


“I consider Edling one of the finest historians of the early American republic in the world today. A Hercules in the Cradle will revolutionize the way historians think about the founding and development of the federal state—a state with the capacity to fulfill the expanding new empire’s ‘manifest destiny.’” 

Peter S. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation

“Edling’s Hercules in the Cradle shows how vitally important fiscal policy has been in laying the groundwork for the modern state. Revisionist historians have long challenged the Cold War shibboleth that the national government in the early republic was nothing but a ‘midget institution in a giant land.’ Edling’s distinctive contribution is to bring this revisionist sensibility to the study of public finance. This lucid and informative monograph vaults Edling to the front ranks of historians of state and society in the nineteenth-century United States; it should remain a standard work in the field for many years to come.”

Richard R. John | Columbia University

“Max Edling deploys his unrivaled mastery of fiscal policy to trace the transformation of the United States in less than a century from a loose confederation into a world power.  He conclusively shows that the ability of American politicians to finance warfare and territorial expansion, despite widespread fear of the national government and long-term debt, was a major reason why the United States succeeded where other nations faltered.”

Andrew Cayton, coauthor of The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000

“In his first book, Max Edling virtually forced American historians to rethink the first premises underlying the adoption of the Constitution. The Federalists of 1787-1788, he demonstrated, were true state-builders. In his new book, Edling traces what that state looked like, how it evolved, and how, notwithstanding all the constitutional controversies it provoked, it proved to be a far more effective vehicle for mobilizing national resources for war than most scholars have appreciated. Thanks to Edling, we now have a much more sophisticated basis for comparing the development of the American state after 1789 to its European counterparts.”

Jack Rakove, author of Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution

“Edling examines in detail the financing of three wars: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War. . . . Exploring the origins and evolution of American public finance, this book is well written and clearly argued. Highly recommended.”


“In this book, following themes laid out in his first monograph, Edling enhances his reputation as one of the leading historians of early US state formation. . . . A Hercules in the Cradle makes a convincing argument for the success of government finance as a crucial source of US expansion and power.”

H-Net Reviews

“Edling has written a very important book, one that deserves to be widely read by both academic specialists and persons interested in the foundations of American power in the twentieth century. . . . Hercules in the Cradle is a well-argued and meticulously researched contribution to an emerging historiography on the development of the early American state.”

New England Quarterly

“In this lively study, bristling with fresh insights and enhanced by serious quantitative analyses, Edling makes a compelling case for America’s growing out of its Herculean cradle because successive administrations successfully addressed its fiscal needs.”

Joyce Appleby, American Political Thought

“Edling’s account of how the development of an American fiscal-military state made possible the US government’s ‘liberal use of . . . aggression and violence’ to achieve its policy aims during the nineteenth century will provide scholars with valuable, interlinked case studies to consult for many years to come. Edling clearly deserves to be numbered among the most original and influential foreign scholars writing American history today.”

Journal of the Civil War Era

“Edling shows how American leaders even outdid Europeans in their embrace of borrow-now, tax-later policies. This sheds new light on war financing beyond what we have long known about the individual conflicts by providing an overarching framework for understanding how this model developed and for appreciating its persistence over time, even in the face of considerable social, economic, and political change. In an era when an estimated four-fifths of all federal spending was on war or preparation for war, Edling tells us an important story about the antebellum state.”

Journal of the Early Republic

A Hercules in the Cradle examines the central role that national debt and tax policy played in the formation, survival, and expansion of the U.S. Edling argues persuasively that deft use of public credit and federal borrowing not only secured the young nation’s financial stability but also made possible the nation’s aggressive expansion from the early days of the republic through the purchase of Alaska in 1867. It is a nuanced and important reconsideration of the central role of national financial policy in the creation and growth of the American republic.”

American Historical Review

“Based on thorough research in primary and secondary sources, and a command of contemporary debates, Edling makes a strong case for his revisionist arguments. . . . The detailed presentation of the nature of government financial policies and of the interaction of national and international forces at the time makes this work important for all historians dealing with the period between the Revolution and the Civil War.”

Stanley L. Engerman | Journal of American History

“Edling’s deeply impressive and vitally important study quietly forces us to reevaluate, to reconsider from the outside, whether the stories we tell ourselves about our moral purposes are quite as compelling in light of this history.”

Journal of Military History

“Though the details can be overwhelming, Edling explains such arcane matters of debt funding strategies with amazing clarity. His basic story is actually straightforward: Hamilton’s system called for the federal government to rely on tariff revenues in peacetime and loans in wartime and then to pay debts down quickly to preserve the nation’s borrowing capacity for future wars. The system had flaws, particularly the vulnerability of tariff revenue to the goodwill of the European naval powers, but Edling is more struck by an irony: that its putative opponents deployed it most aggressively.”

The Historian

Table of Contents

Introduction: War, Money, and American History

1.         A More Effectual Mode of Administration: The Constitution and the Origins of American Public Finance
2.         The Soul of Government: Creating an American Fiscal Regime
3.         So Immense a Power in the Affairs of War: The Restoration of Public Credit
4.         Equal to the Severest Trials: Mr. Madison’s War
5.         The Two Most Powerful Republics in the World: Mr. Polk’s War
6.         A Rank among the Very First of Military Powers: Mr. Lincoln’s War

Conclusion: The Ideology, Structure, and Significance of the First American Fiscal Regime


American Society for Legal History: John Phillip Reid Book Prize

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