By Edward J. Balleisen
The "self-made" guy is a well-recognized determine in nineteenth-century American historical past. however the relentless enlargement of industry kinfolk that facilitated such tales of business good fortune additionally ensured that exact financial disaster could turn into a trendy characteristic within the nation's monetary panorama. during this bold foray into the transferring personality of yank capitalism, Edward Balleisen explores the commercial roots and social meanings of financial ruin, assessing the effect of frequent insolvency at the evolution of yank legislation, enterprise tradition, and advertisement society. Balleisen makes leading edge use of the wealthy and formerly ignored court docket files generated by means of the 1841 Federal financial disaster Act, construction his arguments at the advertisement biographies of hundreds of thousands of failed enterprise vendors. He crafts a nuanced account of the way responses to financial disaster formed opposing components of capitalist society in mid-nineteenth-century America--an entrepreneurial ethos grounded in chance taking and the ceaseless look for new markets, new items, and new methods of organizing monetary task, and an city, middle-class sensibility more and more averse to the risks linked to self reliant proprietorship and more and more predicated on salaried, white-collar employment.
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Extra resources for Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America
Comprised of Joseph Joseph, Solomon Joseph, and Moses Henriques, all of whom would apply for bankruptcy in 1842, Joseph & Co. operated one of the largest exchange brokerages in the nation. The ﬁrm cast a wide commercial net, contracting debts well into the millions of dollars. Among the brokerage house’s many activities were the discounting and collection of country debts for New York City merchants, the marketing of domestic stock and bonds to Americans and Europeans, and the buying and selling of both foreign exchange and commercial paper relating to transatlantic trade.
Nor did they draw the same conclusions from pecuniary embarrassment or adopt a uniform strategy in the e√ort to overcome legacies of failure. Nonetheless, I have identiﬁed telling patterns in the multifarious experience of antebellum bankruptcy and the variegated responses to it—patterns that reveal much about the attempts of commercially oriented Americans to navigate a world increasingly driven by market exchange. Three interrelated themes stand out in this regard: 1) the variable and shifting meanings of ‘‘economic independence’’ in capitalist culture; 2) the importance of familial and social networks to business success, and the resulting clash between two competing versions of commercial morality— one premised on special ﬁnancial obligations to one’s closest business associates, and another, formulated by apostles of an integrated, national economy, that mandated equal treatment to everyone in the marketplace; and 3) the manifold interconnections between widespread ﬁnancial calamity on the one hand, and capitalist dynamism and innovation on the other.
The impulse to return to the marketplace as an independent proprietor was commonplace among nineteenthcentury bankrupts. ∞π Thus this history of antebellum bankruptcy highlights the enduring i n t ro d u c t i o n 15 allure of economic self-direction in nineteenth-century America, even in those parts of society and culture most a√ected by the growth of a market economy. Yet my research also reveals striking transformations in the way that some commercially minded Americans, and especially a number of onetime bankrupts, thought about personal independence.