Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America

Overview

The "self-made" man is a familiar figure in nineteenth-century American history. But the relentless expansion of market relations that facilitated such stories of commercial success also ensured that individual bankruptcy would become a prominent feature in the nation's economic landscape. In this ambitious foray into the shifting character of American capitalism, Edward Balleisen explores the economic roots and social meanings of bankruptcy, assessing the impact of widespread insolvency on the evolution of ...
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Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America

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Overview

The "self-made" man is a familiar figure in nineteenth-century American history. But the relentless expansion of market relations that facilitated such stories of commercial success also ensured that individual bankruptcy would become a prominent feature in the nation's economic landscape. In this ambitious foray into the shifting character of American capitalism, Edward Balleisen explores the economic roots and social meanings of bankruptcy, assessing the impact of widespread insolvency on the evolution of American law, business culture, and commercial society.

Balleisen makes innovative use of the rich and previously overlooked court records generated by the 1841 Federal Bankruptcy Act, building his arguments on the commercial biographies of hundreds of failed business owners. He crafts a nuanced account of how responses to bankruptcy shaped two opposing elements of capitalist society in mid-nineteenth-century America--an entrepreneurial ethos grounded in risk taking and the ceaseless search for new markets, new products, and new ways of organizing economic activity, and an urban, middle-class sensibility increasingly averse to the dangers associated with independent proprietorship and increasingly predicated on salaried, white-collar employment.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Worthy of placement on the desk of bankruptcy lawyers, academics, judges, policy makers and historians. Even some debtors might benefit by reading it. (New York Law Journal)

This important book makes a major contribution to the history of antebellum society, economy, law, and culture, and to the history of American capitalism generally. (Christopher Clark, University of Warwick)

Balleisen has immersed himself in the financial remains of over five hundred insolvent debtors and reconstructed who they were, how they made and lost their fortunes and why, and what happened to them afterward. (Bruce H. Mann, University of Pennsylvania)

New York Law Journal
Worthy of placement on the desk of bankruptcy lawyers, academics, judges, policy makers and historians. Even some debtors might benefit by reading it.
Christopher Clark
This important book makes a major contribution to the history of antebellum society, economy, law, and culture, and to the history of American capitalism generally.
Bruce H. Mann
Balleisen has immersed himself in the financial remains of over five hundred insolvent debtors and reconstructed who they were, how they made and lost their fortunes and why, and what happened to them afterward.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Edward J. Balleisen is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History at Duke University, where he teaches courses on nineteenth-century America.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction: Risk and Wreckage in Antebellum America 1
Pt. 1 The Roots of Misfortune
1 Perils of the Credit System 25
2 Guises of Financial Vulnerability 49
Pt. 2 The Institutional World of Bankruptcy
3 Dilemmas of Failure 69
4 American Jubilee 101
5 The Art of Wrecking 135
Pt. 3 The Promise of Economic Rebirth
6 Fresh Starts 165
7 Return to Proprietorship 183
8 Sidestepping the Credit System 203
Epilogue: Individual Bankruptcy and the Rise of American Big Business 221
Notes on Research Method 229
Notes 233
Bibliography 295
Index 311
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