Navigating Failure

Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America

By Edward J. Balleisen

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 21 illus., 2 maps, 1 fig., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4916-3
    Published: March 2001
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-7550-6
    Published: January 2003

Luther H. Hodges Jr. and Luther H. Hodges Sr. Series on Business, Entrepreneurship, and Public Policy

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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 search for 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.

About the Author

Edward J. Balleisen is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History at Duke University, where he teaches courses on nineteenth-century America.
For more information about Edward J. Balleisen, visit the Author Page.


"[A] fascinating description of business life in America from 1820 to 1860. . . . Balleisen has constructed a solid study of the seamier side of mercantile life in antebellum America, one well worth reading both for the elegant arguments and for the fascinating factual information it provides."--Journal of the Early Republic

"A carefully crafted, well-written historical account of what happened to the businesses and their owners who sought bankruptcy relief under the short-lived Bankruptcy Act of 1841 . . . . [Balleisen] paints a remarkable portrait of a state and a nation struggling with its economic development . . . . Navigating Faliure is, then, a worthwhile read and it is [a] book worthy of placement on the desk of bankruptcy lawyers, academics, judges, policy makers and historians. Even some debtors might benefit by reading it."--New York Law Journal

"Navigating Failure is a lucidly written institutional history. . . . This is a must-read for anyone interested in the boom and bust cycles and socialization processes that have defined American capitalist culture, including the initial euphoria that tends to precede embarrassment, chastisement, reform, and eventual absolution."--Gulf South Historical Review

"This important book makes a major contribution to the history of antebellum society, economy, law, and culture, and to the history of American capitalism generally. It offers a lively, readable, and non-technical account of the experiences of men and women who were overwhelmed by debt in the depression of the early 1840s. It also provides a striking analysis of the subsequent growth of salaried employment and the origins of America's corporate middle class."--Christopher Clark, University of Warwick

"Balleisen has immersed himself in the financial remains of over five hundred insolvent debtors and reconstructed who they were, how they made and lost their fortunes and why, and what happened to them afterward. The result is a richly textured, often riveting portrait of economic risk and the power of entrepreneurial spirit in mid-nineteenth-century America."--Bruce H. Mann, University of Pennsylvania