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Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence

4.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674009028
ISBN-10: 0674009029
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Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.


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...A fascinating work of economic history that sheds light on daily life in the young Republic. (Kirkus Reviews 2002-11-01)

This new work from Mann...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...This thoroughly researched work is an excellent resource. (Robert K. Flatley Library Journal 2003-01-01)

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 Books and Culture 2003-04-01)

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 Washington Times 2003-02-09)

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 Times Higher Education Supplement 2003-10-17)

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 Forbes 2004-01-12)

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 American Historical Review 2004-06-01)

A landmark study of eighteenth-century financial failure. (Jill Lepore New Yorker 2009-04-13)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674009029
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674009028
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,703,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Bankruptcy is in the air these days, from Enron to overextended former dot-commers. So-called "bankruptcy reform" -- intended to make bankruptcy more difficult and more punitive for debtors -- has been pushed by large creditors for years, and almost passed in the most recent session of Congress.
I'm a first-semester law student. I came to this book with a solid, basic understanding of modern bankruptcy law (gained as a business person and as a legal assistant prior to starting law school). As an undergraduate I took two semesters of legal history, and I have an extensive personal interest in American history.
Despite my background, until I read this book I had no real appreciation of the implications of failing to have an effective bankruptcy law. Focusing primarily on the second half of the eighteenth century (both before and after the American Revolution), Republic of Debtors does an amazing job of showing the social, humanitarian and economic consequences of failing to provide for an orderly discharge of debts in bankruptcy, especially when combined with creditors' remedies such as imprisonment for debt.
I, for one, had never confronted the fact that imprisonment for debt survived so long after the American Revolution, nor did I realize that, aside from some brief experiments, the US did not adopt a set nationwide laws on bankruptcy until the late nineteenth century.
Professor Mann tells the story by drawing on a wide variety of primary materials, including the diaries of imprisoned debtors and documentation of court cases. One particularly interesting chapter deals with the an elaborate form of self-government that evolved within one of the debtor's prisons.
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Format: Paperback
In the 18th century, the inability to pay debts was considered a moral failure. Mann traces the changing culture of debt around before and after the revolution. After the revolution, insolvency goes from a sin to a risk. Instead of a moral failure, bankruptcy becomes an economic failure. Because debt was so pervasive and common, and was not limited to the poor, the young republic was forced to reinterpret its view of lending and borrowing. In the new economy, failure was possible without punishment. Instead of a classical moral economy, America entered a risk-taking, productive Capitalist economy.

Some of this thinking was already in the works. Cotton Mather, for example, had earlier declared that some debt is necessary and that it is not all sin. In the 18th century as well, Puritans were no longer against usury and they realized that some bankruptcy was the sign of healthy entrepreneurial activity.
Wartime disruptions in the market created debtors. The French and Indian War was in this way a trial run for the revolution. The war created so many debtors that leniency was necessary. Debtors appeals to sympathy for release, or to logic, arguing that house arrest of gaol meant inactivity and no productivity. Debtors fled to the trans-Appalachian West to secure independence. Especially tobacco farmers were at risk of debt. There was great uncertainty about supply and demand with cash crops that were destined for international markets. Overinvestment one year might lead to debt in the next. Yet all states had imprisonment for debt, most Americans assuming that this was a necessary punishment. But as debt redefined from moral failure to economic risk, debtors were put in separate gaols, kept away from other felons.

One's reputation was his credit.
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Format: Paperback
Meticulously researched and accurate. Excellent balance of anecdote, historical context and legal history. This book is a resource for bankruptcy lawyers yet a good read for anyone curious about treatment of debtors in early America, the development of US bankruptcy law, and this important aspect of our history.
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Format: Hardcover
Today the rich can still find ways to get out of the spendthrift debts with trusts, shelters, and bankruptcy, but we have to crack down on the debts that poor people get into like student loans, medical expenses, unemployment and the like.

This book tells us that the elite in the U.S. have always been all in favor of getting out of their own debt while holding the lowborn to the "morality" of insolvency for life.
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