A Review of Niall Ferguson’s PBS Special: The Ascent of Money

Did you know the bond market in Europe was a significant factor in deciding the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo? The historic defeat of Napoleon that set the tone for European politics in the 19th Century might have ended up much different without bond traders assisting the Prussian army by betting on and financing the Duke of Wellington’s assault on French forces. Harvard professor Niall Ferguson believes it was the deciding factor, and makes his case in a PBS special this month, The Ascent of Money: A financial history of the world.

The four part series of hour long excursions through financial history is based on the best selling book by the same name. Airing on your local PBS station July 8, 15, 22, and 29, Ferguson explains how he believes money has grown to play a “terrifying dominant role in all our lives.” Recognizing the power of money isn’t a new concept. But Ferguson’s thesis, that financial history is the “essential back story of all history”, is more novel.

Studies of the American Civil War generally gloss over the South’s inability to secure long-term financing. The Ascent of Money goes into detail about the European bond traders’ conscious choices not to finance the Confederates as they had the British against Napoleon. Money is generally the underscored aspect of any war, but Ferguson builds a solid case that money is the fundamental driving force behind all of history, war and otherwise.

Ferguson travels all over the world to film a visual presentation of his book, from Bolivia to Hong Kong to New York to London. From ancient Incan ruins, he describes the world before the concept of money. From Venice he shows the viewers original accounting books from the financial entrepreneurs of the Medici family. And as he does he bounces back and forth from historical accounts to present day parallels, from John Law to Bernie Madoff, from cathedrals to skyscrapers, from ancient lands to modern metropolises.

Although the series is overly dramatic, the history is presented in simple and interesting stories. Ferguson discusses the importance of the western switch from Roman to Arabic numerals, the invention of companies, government bonds, and the stock market, the evolution of the concept of credit, and the history of the first real estate bubble, among many other things.

Thankfully, the professor rarely gets bogged down in the excruciating detail that drives students away from history classes in school. As a result, the PBS special really is an overview of the financial history of the world. However, the events he chooses present an excellent snap shot of how all history has been driven by money and wealth as the source of power.

Anyone interested in history, particularly financial history, will find The Ascent of Money worth their time. You can watch the first episode online here. Or check out the series website here.