Cover: Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence, from Harvard University PressCover: Republic of Debtors in PAPERBACK

Republic of Debtors

Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence

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Product Details


$26.00 • £20.95 • €23.50

ISBN 9780674032415

Publication Date: 04/15/2009


358 pages

5-11/16 x 8-15/16 inches

1 halftone


A landmark study of eighteenth-century financial failure.—Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

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

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, The Times Higher Education Supplement

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, The Washington Times

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

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 & Culture

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

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

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.—Jon Butler, Yale University

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.—Cornelia H. Dayton, University of Connecticut

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.—Linda K. Kerber, University of Iowa

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.—Gloria L. Main, University of Colorado, Boulder

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.—Jack N. Rakove, Stanford University

Awards & Accolades

  • Co-Winner, 2004 James Willard Hurst Prize, Law and Society Association
  • 2002 SHEAR Book Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic
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