Research

Moral Debt in Modern America

I am a historian of law, culture, and capitalism in the United States. My research considers how ordinary people have used legal institutions to police the moral boundaries of the market. These themes lie at the center of my book manuscript, Moral Debt in Modern America, which is adapted from my Brown University dissertation and is under contract with University of Chicago Press.

 

At the heart of the study is a question that consumed Americans over one hundred years ago and carries renewed significance today: what rights do ordinary people bring to the market when they choose to take on debt? In the present moment, this is a problem articulated through the housing crisis, student borrowing, and incarceration owing to unpaid fees and fines. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a similar set of concerns prevailed, centered on farm mortgages, cash advances from employers, predatory loan sharks, and debts that passed from one spouse to the other. In a context framed by industrialization, westward settlement, and slave emancipation, determining the rights of the debtor—that is, the limits on what could be pledged and lost in financial relationships—acquired immense moral urgency. My manuscript traces how these problems were experienced and how their tentative resolution in law and culture shaped inequality in the modern United States.