Lance Morrow is a stylist, who has written a book God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.
More properly, Morrow is an essayist and his book is a series of essays meandering through a well-curated collection of American ideas about money.
God and Mammon is worth reading for anyone interested in a survey of American and other writers and actors who have commented directly or indirectly, obsessively or in passing, on the American relationship with money.
Morrow offers cleverly assembled quotes from, and carefully written vignettes about, great people, most of them Americans. He frequently sets up his subjects as binaries with contrasting and contradictory views, which makes reading more stimulating.
In God and Mammon you will find stories about Hernando Cortes and Sir Walter Raleigh, John and Moses Brown, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, Daniel Defoe and Mark Twain, Hetty Green and Oprah Winfrey, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, Calvin Coolidge and Ulysses Grant, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Luce and Pearl Buck, and Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, to mention just a few.
If these names and their connections to the American conception of money interest you, you must read and will enjoy this book. You must, however, at the same time not allow yourself to be swept up by Morrow’s skill as a stylist to adopt his theme, because as enjoyable as this book is, it is wrong—very nearly completely wrong.
Morrow’s theme is “Money is an indelicate explanation of America, perhaps, but perhaps the truest one—or, anyway, the most intelligent starting point.” As initial support, he cites Alexis de Tocqueville: “One usually finds that love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything Americans do . . . it agitates their minds but disciplines their lives.”
Morrow supposes the American ethos reduces happiness to money, and that the range of political contemplation of the United States has been and ever will be money and race, commercialism and tribalism, intertwined from the beginning and bedeviling us today.
Morrow includes a revealing chapter on his family. His mother was a Communist, at least early on. In an act of rehabilitative filial piety, Morrow falsely claims “it was not unusual for people to be communists in those days.” This may have been true in the 1950s in the narrow enclave of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with its cliques of writers living in rent-controlled apartments. In other places, it was highly unusual. Morrow does not speak of his father’s beliefs, other than to protest, “My father, when very young, worked to keep the communists from taking over the Newspaper Guild at the Inquirer.”
But no matter. His mother and father had a relationship to money not unusual, then or now, for literary types. They “were often broke,” but they ran alongside money. His “glamorous” parents were “ambitious and successful journalists during the Truman Administration,” a time when the middle class, headed by citizen soldiers returning from war, built anew a surplus that would be the political foundation of American society for the second half of the 20th century. Politics then swung between appeals to the aspirations and insecurities of a dominant middle class.
The American chattering class obsesses over wealth because they live in the midst of it, and the royalties of their trade—which is chattering—bring only a few of them the wealth to which they are witness and feel entitled. Journalism is overrun with green-eyed types, mystified that their intellectually simpler subjects have an easier time making money. Candidly, this breeds grifters, and more than a handful of Marxists. Chatterers, perhaps, see America through a lens of money because they fancy themselves philosopher kings—often ones who embrace Marx’s crude arithmetic that reduces everything to gobbling up the fruits of production—by any means necessary.
Philosopher kings come to us from Plato. In his Republic, the protagonist Socrates explores the meaning of justice at a dinner party hosted by a Cephalus, a metic. Metics were foreigners living in Greek cities who had many commercial rights, but few political rights. They were the foundation of Athenian trading culture, necessitated by the underproductive Attic soil. Cephalus thought only about money, but he had an excuse: the law did not permit him to think of anything else. Cephalus, in the Republic, offers the first definition of justice: telling the truth and paying one’s debts.
Cephalus’ commercial justice proves inadequate; justice is not consistent with always telling the truth. Cephalus’ proposition is followed by a definition of justice as helping friends and harming enemies. This fails over wisdom: knowing precisely who is a friend and who is an enemy. Another guest, Thrasymachus, insists justice is the interest of the stronger, a thought to keep in mind when the meaningless statistic that a presidential candidate won the popular vote is asserted for the purpose of denigrating the Electoral College and its mechanisms. Socrates makes a tremendous effort to overcome Thrasymachus’ argument, describing a city in speech as a metaphor for the psychology of a just man, who governs himself, reason ruling anger to harness appetite.
Morrow’s definition of America, which he suggests is “perhaps the truest one,” fails for a reason we can see in the Republic. While an ethos of trade is needed for a republic, as it was for Athens, the essence of a republic is found in a higher claim: what it means to be a good human being.
The beginning of United States isn’t found at the burning of Cortes’ ships, Smith’s founding of Jamestown, or the arrival of first African slaves and the sickening commoditization of permanent chattel slavery. The United States starts with the Declaration of Independence, a document that opens with an abstract truth “applicable to all men at all times” (as Lincoln said) and ends with a singularly uncommercial statement: “ . . . with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” There could be no more clear elevation of civic friendship, in liberty and political nobility, over worldly and material interests than is embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
The United States is—or was once—a republic, and as such is—or was once—grounded in a truth much greater than money: the right—indeed, the fundamental requirement for the realization of human potential—that a man govern himself, his conscience, and his actions freely in civic friendship with his neighbors. This requires money and the use of money. Butit is not about money.
In our recent election, counties representing 70 percent of gross domestic product voted for an oligarchic coalition of progressives, Big Tech, and Big Finance. The counties representing the remaining 30 percent, those that did not vote in this way, represent the remnant of a once-thriving American middle class. Americans will not search their way safely out of the political cul de sac in which they find themselves if they listen too closely to voices similar to Morrow’s, confusing the greatness of America with money.