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Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence

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Overview

Debt was an inescapable fact of life in early America. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, its sinfulness was preached by ministers and the right to imprison debtors was unquestioned. By 1800, imprisonment for debt was under attack and insolvency was no longer seen as a moral failure, merely an economic setback. In Republic of Debtors, Bruce H. Mann illuminates this crucial transformation in early American society.
From the wealthy merchant to the backwoods farmer, Mann tells the personal stories of men and women struggling to repay their debts and stay ahead of their creditors. He opens a window onto a society undergoing such fundamental changes as the growth of a commercial economy, the emergence of a consumer marketplace, and a revolution for independence. In addressing debt Americans debated complicated questions of commerce and agriculture, nationalism and federalism, dependence and independence, slavery and freedom. And when numerous prominent men—including the richest man in America and a justice of the Supreme Court—found themselves imprisoned for debt or forced to become fugitives from creditors, their fate altered the political dimensions of debtor relief, leading to the highly controversial Bankruptcy Act of 1800.
Whether a society forgives its debtors is not just a question of law or economics; it goes to the heart of what a society values. In chronicling attitudes toward debt and bankruptcy in early America, Mann explores the very character of American society.
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Editorial Reviews

Books and Culture

In his new illuminating book...[Bruce Mann] identifies a fundamental societal change in attitude toward debtors...He traces the evolution of American attitudes toward debt and insolvency throughout the 1700s, culminating in the first federal bankruptcy law in 1800.
— Stephen Smith

Washington Times

In this gripping account of being in debt in the land of the free, Bruce Mann illuminates the origins of Americans' ambivalent relationship to business failure...Mann employs his considerable talents to bring to life a world where much that seems normal and logical to us now—like a unified currency, or the fact that you cannot pay off a debt if you are stuck in jail—was not. Mr. Mann's genius is to explain in clear and human terms the legal and economic intricacies by which early American creditors and debtors lived and died.
— Evan Haefeli

Times Higher Education Supplement

Bruce Mann, a noted authority on early American law and society, offers an incomparable study of 18th-century indebtedness and insolvency, tackling a tough subject with clarity and sympathy...Anyone interested in the history of American law and business will find this an enlightening book.
— Christopher Clark

Forbes

Back [in colonial days] debtors were treated worse than thieves. In prison they had to foot the bill for their own food and heat, or else go without. In 1798, when yellow fever swept Philadelphia, all prisoners from city jails were evacuated to safety—all, that is, but the deadbeats. Bruce Mann, a law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says such harsh treatment reflected a culture in which failure to repay debt was regarded as a moral failing rather than a business one. How Americans' attitude toward debt changed is the subject of Mann's masterful (but largely overlooked) 2002 history, Republic of Debtors.
— Bernard Condon

American Historical Review

Bankruptcy scholars and conventional legal historians aim to capture [societal and political tensions] by directing their attention to high legal text and their framers' original intentions. But for Mann, such documents serve only as points of reference on a journey whose aim is to understand contemporary cultural conceptions. Mann wisely identifies debtors' prisons, rather than legal texts or political discourse, as the path into his world…Mann uses the correspondence, memoirs, and pamphlets written by inmates to portray not only their miserable daily lives but also their cries for help…The 1800 Bankruptcy Act, amid controversy, narrowly passed. Mann is the first to narrate its passage authoritatively.
— Ron Harris

New Yorker

A landmark study of eighteenth-century financial failure.
— Jill Lepore

Jon Butler
Republic of Debtors is a superb, even dramatic, book about debt, the law on debt, and the experience of debt in the early American republic that reveals how problems over money, credit, and debt shattered lives and transfixed politics as thoroughly in the Revolutionary and early national eras as they still do in the twenty-first century.
Gloria L. Main
Bruce Mann has given us a superb study of the evolution of early American cultural attitudes towards personal indebtedness and their impact on law and legal procedures. His vivid stories of imprisoned debtors are both eye-opening and instructive. Mann has made a fresh, original, and immensely significant contribution to the history of the Early Republic.
Cornelia H. Dayton
This is a lucid, deeply researched, and powerfully insightful study of attitudes toward debt and bankruptcy in the "long eighteenth century." In sparkling prose, Mann introduces us to a key aspect of how Americans put their own spin on emergent capitalism while he also addresses the ambivalent legacies of the constitution-framing years.
Linda K. Kerber
Writing with clarity, grace and wit, Bruce Mann tells a compelling tale that opens up fresh dimensions of the politics, imagination and nightmares of the founding generation. I emerged with a far better grasp of the complexities of paper money and credit than I ever hoped to have. As we struggle to handle our own credit cards, it is useful to reflect on the deeply ironic relationship among personal independence, personal identity, and personal indebtedness that has long characterized American life.
Jack N. Rakove
Readers now owe Bruce Mann a hefty debt of their own for this imaginative and painstakingly researched account of changing ideas of credit, debt, and bankruptcy in eighteenth-century America. Debt is one of those pervasive aspects of society that we take for granted, yet its functions and complications require unusual diligence to master. But mastery of this rich subject is exactly what Mann has gained. This model study contributes at once to the legal, social, economic, moral, political, and intellectual history of early America, while telling an intriguing story of shifting attitudes and relations.
Books and Culture - Stephen Smith
In his new illuminating book...[Bruce Mann] identifies a fundamental societal change in attitude toward debtors...He traces the evolution of American attitudes toward debt and insolvency throughout the 1700s, culminating in the first federal bankruptcy law in 1800.
Washington Times - Evan Haefeli
In this gripping account of being in debt in the land of the free, Bruce Mann illuminates the origins of Americans' ambivalent relationship to business failure...Mann employs his considerable talents to bring to life a world where much that seems normal and logical to us now--like a unified currency, or the fact that you cannot pay off a debt if you are stuck in jail--was not. Mr. Mann's genius is to explain in clear and human terms the legal and economic intricacies by which early American creditors and debtors lived and died.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Christopher Clark
Bruce Mann, a noted authority on early American law and society, offers an incomparable study of 18th-century indebtedness and insolvency, tackling a tough subject with clarity and sympathy...Anyone interested in the history of American law and business will find this an enlightening book.
Forbes - Bernard Condon
Back [in colonial days] debtors were treated worse than thieves. In prison they had to foot the bill for their own food and heat, or else go without. In 1798, when yellow fever swept Philadelphia, all prisoners from city jails were evacuated to safety--all, that is, but the deadbeats. Bruce Mann, a law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says such harsh treatment reflected a culture in which failure to repay debt was regarded as a moral failing rather than a business one. How Americans' attitude toward debt changed is the subject of Mann's masterful (but largely overlooked) 2002 history, Republic of Debtors.
American Historical Review - Ron Harris
Bankruptcy scholars and conventional legal historians aim to capture [societal and political tensions] by directing their attention to high legal text and their framers' original intentions. But for Mann, such documents serve only as points of reference on a journey whose aim is to understand contemporary cultural conceptions. Mann wisely identifies debtors' prisons, rather than legal texts or political discourse, as the path into his world…Mann uses the correspondence, memoirs, and pamphlets written by inmates to portray not only their miserable daily lives but also their cries for help…The 1800 Bankruptcy Act, amid controversy, narrowly passed. Mann is the first to narrate its passage authoritatively.
New Yorker - Jill Lepore
A landmark study of eighteenth-century financial failure.
Forbes
Back [in colonial days] debtors were treated worse than thieves. In prison they had to foot the bill for their own food and heat, or else go without. In 1798, when yellow fever swept Philadelphia, all prisoners from city jails were evacuated to safety--all, that is, but the deadbeats. Bruce Mann, a law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says such harsh treatment reflected a culture in which failure to repay debt was regarded as a moral failing rather than a business one. How Americans' attitude toward debt changed is the subject of Mann's masterful (but largely overlooked) 2002 history, Republic of Debtors.
— Bernard Condon
New Yorker
A landmark study of eighteenth-century financial failure.
— Jill Lepore
Washington Times
In this gripping account of being in debt in the land of the free, Bruce Mann illuminates the origins of Americans' ambivalent relationship to business failure...Mann employs his considerable talents to bring to life a world where much that seems normal and logical to us now--like a unified currency, or the fact that you cannot pay off a debt if you are stuck in jail--was not. Mr. Mann's genius is to explain in clear and human terms the legal and economic intricacies by which early American creditors and debtors lived and died.
— Evan Haefeli
American Historical Review
Bankruptcy scholars and conventional legal historians aim to capture [societal and political tensions] by directing their attention to high legal text and their framers' original intentions. But for Mann, such documents serve only as points of reference on a journey whose aim is to understand contemporary cultural conceptions. Mann wisely identifies debtors' prisons, rather than legal texts or political discourse, as the path into his world…Mann uses the correspondence, memoirs, and pamphlets written by inmates to portray not only their miserable daily lives but also their cries for help…The 1800 Bankruptcy Act, amid controversy, narrowly passed. Mann is the first to narrate its passage authoritatively.
— Ron Harris
Times Higher Education Supplement
Bruce Mann, a noted authority on early American law and society, offers an incomparable study of 18th-century indebtedness and insolvency, tackling a tough subject with clarity and sympathy...Anyone interested in the history of American law and business will find this an enlightening book.
— Christopher Clark
Books and Culture
In his new illuminating book...[Bruce Mann] identifies a fundamental societal change in attitude toward debtors...He traces the evolution of American attitudes toward debt and insolvency throughout the 1700s, culminating in the first federal bankruptcy law in 1800.
— Stephen Smith
Publishers Weekly
This subtle, wide-ranging study examines changing attitudes towards insolvency and their importance to the economy and self-image of the early American republic. Mann, a professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, shows how debtor-relief movements like Shay's Rebellion, a post-Revolution wave of business failures and the need to pay off the public Revolutionary War debt made the problem of debt central to the politics of the new Republic, while the growth of consumer and credit markets enmeshed ever greater portions of the public in debt. A complex imagery of manhood, honor and dependency surrounded the perception of debt in the public mind, while debtors began to invoke the Rights of Man as an argument against debtors' prison. The result, Mann argues, is that by the end of the 18th century insolvency increasingly came to be viewed as economic misfortune rather than moral failure-but only for some. Bankruptcy laws were written to shield wealthy commercial debtors, while broke farmers and workers continued to face prison. Mann examines the political, class and regional antagonisms surrounding the issues of debt and bankruptcy, and draws on newspapers, popular literature and profiles of individual debtors to evoke the complex emotions aroused by debt. The result is an elegantly written blend of economic, political and cultural history that puts in context a problem that is still with us today. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This new work from Mann (law & history, Univ. of Pennsylvania) examines the relationship between creditors and debtors during late 18th-century America. He specifically focuses on the transformation of society's view of indebtedness from a moral failing to an economic one. Throughout most of history, debt was considered a moral sin punishable by imprisonment. However, this perception began to change in the late 18th century because of numerous factors that included increasing commercialization, the availability of paper currency, and the fact that many prominent men lost their fortunes speculating in land and other ventures. Mann uses the Bankruptcy Act of 1800 as the defining moment of this transition. This short-lived act, hitherto unthinkable, gave debt relief to commercial entrepreneurs whose ventures had failed. The author quotes liberally from lawyers, judges, politicians, debtors, and creditors of the era. This thoroughly researched work is an excellent resource for graduate students and scholars.-Robert K. Flatley, Kutztown Univ. of Pennsylvania Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Thomas Jefferson died owing the equivalent of millions of dollars, while the richest man in revolutionary America did prison time for not paying his bills. "Debt was an inescapable fact of life in early America," writes Mann—a fact with considerable political and economic implications. Bankruptcy, that familiar constant in an age of boom and bust, has a moral as well as financial component. Deservedly or not, in the early days of the American republic, shame and mistrust attached to a debtor who sought shelter and relief under the law, notes the author (Law and History/Univ. of Pennsylvania), quoting a toast offered in the New York debtors’ prison when Congress finally passed a short-lived national bankruptcy bill in 1800: "May the pride of every debtor be to pay his just debts, if ever in his power; and shun offers of credit in future as destructive to his life, liberty, and property." Yet early Americans depended on the extension of credit to finance new farms, factories, and residences, to tame the frontier, and to bring goods to market. They also depended on the mercy of the courts to keep them out of prison when, as often happened, they failed in their various ventures. Mann offers the instructive case of Robert Morris, the J. P. Morgan of his day, who "embraced debt as the engine of his vast speculations" and refused to "moralize failure." In the author’s view, Morris perfectly illustrates the reigning attitudes of the time: on the one hand, economic failure was personal failure, but on the other it was simply part of the cost of doing business. Mann also examines the history of national bankruptcy laws, which ran counter to the view held by Jefferson and many other leaders thatdebt was the province of the individual states and not the federal government. A fascinating work of economic history that sheds light on daily life in the young Republic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674032415
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 358
  • Sales rank: 1,042,960
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 3.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce H. Mann is Carl F. Schipper, Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
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Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Debtors and Creditors
  • 2. The Law of Failure
  • 3. Imprisoned Debtors in the Early Republic
  • 4. The Imagery of Insolvency
  • 5. A Shadow Republic
  • 6. The Politics of Insolvency
  • 7. The Faces of Bankruptcy
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Index

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