Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America

Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America

Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America

Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America


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 searchfor 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.


In the city of New York there are probably about two thousand applicants for the benefit of the bankrupt law. The schedules, containing the necessary description of the affairs of these individuals, are about ten thousand in number, and form a library of the most remarkable and instructive character. … In these documents we are presented with a perfect picture—drawn with all of the stern fidelity of legal accuracy and precision—of the actual condition of society, the errors, follies, vices, and indiscretions of men—the course and progress of finance, morals, and religion.

It is indeed difficult to describe the full interest and importance of these most curious of all auto-biographies. What a world of sagacious speculation, and sober reasoning, and painful moralizing, and philosophical reflection, is opened up to the thoughtful reader of one of these magic volumes. The whole history of a man's career, with all its bounding hopes, its disappointments, its hypocrisies, its shiftings, its doublings to escape the dreaded exposure, its positive frauds—all this condensed into the formal record of a legal document.

New York Herald, December 14, 1842

On the morning of February 2, 1842, William W. Campbell opened an office at No. 12 John Street, in the middle of New York City's bustling mercantile quarter. Campbell did a thriving business that day and continued to do so for the next thirteen months. Week after week, grocers, jobbers, brokers, and dealers of every description paraded into his office. Joining them were agents, clerks, and selfproclaimed gentlemen, stagecoach drivers and cartmen, manufacturers of everything from iron rails to carpets, customhouse officers and tavern keepers, doctors and druggists, carpenters, shoemakers and tailors, butchers and bakers, the occasional boardinghouse keeper or milliner, and particularly lawyers.

These representatives of nearly every walk of New York City life came to William Campbell or sent their attorneys to him because he held out the prospect of . . .

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