Research

The Debt Question in Modern America

I am an interdisciplinary historian of the United States whose research investigates how ordinary people have used the law to police the moral boundaries of capitalism. These concerns lie at the heart of my manuscript, The Debt Question in Modern America, which is under contract with University of Chicago Press. This study considers how a diverse gallery of Gilded Age and Progressive Era Americans, including freedpeople, feminists, and social reformers, debated what could be risked in the financial marketplace and what should be forbidden. As these figures wrestled over the morality of mortgaging land, home goods, and labor power, all under the long shadow of slave emancipation, they confronted competing beliefs about the freedoms most natural to different people: men and women, black and white, propertied and working class. Using evidence from insolvency litigation, equal-access-to-credit advocacy, and the anti-peonage and anti-usury movements, I trace how deeply conservative visions of social order were summoned to legitimize controversial financial relationships. I argue that out of these struggles, a more speculative political economy took form, alongside powerful cultural resources for accommodating its darker dimensions.