The Ascent of Niall Ferguson

The Ascent of Niall Ferguson

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
by Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press, 2008, 432 pp., $29.95


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Nestled in the acknowledgments at the end of Niall Ferguson’s new “financial history of the world” lies a sentence that is as remarkable as it is nonchalant. “Like my last three books,” the historian writes, “The Ascent of Money was from its earliest inception a television series as well as a book.” He goes on to express gratitude to collaborators at both Great Britain’s Channel 4 and America’s PBS. This is a gracious and appropriate thing to do. Given that few other academics on the planet would ever need to offer such thanks, it is also an indication of the extraordinarily charmed career that the still-young professor has led thus far.

At the age of forty-four, the Scottish-born Ferguson holds joint appointments in Harvard’s history department and at its business school. He is a senior fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, too. He regularly appears as a commentator in magazines and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, and he has been named by Time as one of the “100 most influential people in the world today.” Add in his books and those recurrent mini-series on public television and the coup is complete: Niall Ferguson is everywhere.

As his prominence as a well-chaired professor has grown, so has his political influence. He is known for his writing on empire and on international finance, two topics of particular concern to progressive historians and political economists. Ferguson, however, is irrefutably a man of the Right. And it is the interaction of his high academic standing, his distinct brand of conservatism, and his omnipresence as a public intellectual that makes him an important, if troubling, personality to comprehend.

Acclaim came early to Ferguson. Other than two formative years spent in Kenya, he grew up in the west of Scotland, the son of a doctor and a physics teacher. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he claims he was an unfocused student. “I spent two years doing everything but work,” he told one interviewer. “I played the double bass in the jazz quintet, debated rather badly at the Oxford Union, edited a student magazine, and even appeared as the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, hookah and all.”

George Monbiot, now a left-wing columnist for the Guardian, was a housemate of the budding historian, and he casts Ferguson in a different light. In their latter years at university, Monbiot writes, Ferguson possessed an untiring drive. “He was charming, generous-spirited and easy to live with, but I think it is fair to say that everyone was frightened of him. It’s not just that my housemate knew his subject better than his contemporaries….[he] knew where he wanted to take it...