Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence. By Bruce H.
Mann. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. viii + 344 pp. Notes, index. Cloth,
$29.95. ISBN 0-674-00902-9.
Reviewed by Bruce G. Carruthers
As Congress starts and stalls on bankruptcy-law reform in the early twenty-first century,
amid great furor over whether consumers should be able to discharge their credit-card
debts, it is easy to believe that such political controversy could only have occurred after
the U.S. economy became heavily dependent on modern forms of credit. Bruce Mann’s
wonderful new book reminds us that such controversies are not historically
unprecedented. Plastic money may be new, but credit, and its abuse, are decidedly not.
Republic of Debtors is a beautifully written and thoroughly researched book that
examines bankruptcy in eighteenth-century America. Predictably enough, the central
topic leads to consideration of the commercial legal system in connection with the
economy, but Mann also points out bankruptcy’s political, social, and cultural dimensions
in an insightful and engaging discussion. In several ways, Mann shows that credit and
failure were much more than just brute economic facts. They possessed complex social
meanings that resonated powerfully with the concerns and ideals of the citizenry.
Whether a society forgives its failed debtors, and how much forgiveness they can expect,
is an issue with considerable economic and legal import.
Mann begins by explaining how economic development, and in particular the
growing use of written credit instruments, changed debt in pre-Revolutionary America.
Early on, most debts were informal and occurred in the context of preexisting relations of
friendship, neighborliness, or some other social connection. People borrowed on the basis
of their personal reputation or perceived creditworthiness, and debt was pervasive.
Among Virginia planters, for example, credit was extended on the basis of an oral
promise to repay, and if debtors were