The country of the second chance: economic failure and recovery in Atchison County, Kansas, 1865-1896

Vandermeulen, David John, Department of History, University of Virginia
Zunz, Olivier, E1:AS-History, University of Virginia
Mccurdy, Charles, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Thomas, Mark, E1:PV-International Studies, University of Virginia
Thomas, James A., International Studies, University of Virginia

Through a microhistory of 47 farmers and 134 merchants, manufacturers and professionals who failed economically in Atchison County, Kansas, between 1865 and 1896, this dissertation addresses the question of whether second chances for failed debtors were as readily available as America's national mythology would suggest. By meticulously recreating the economic lives of individuals before and after economic failure through census records, land records, judicial case files, Dun credit records, newspapers and other primary sources, the dissertation examines the reasons why farmers, merchants and others failed, the maneuvering of failing debtors and their creditors, the operation of the legal processes — assignment for the benefit of creditors, bankruptcy, and foreclosure — that dealt with economic failure, and the strategies and prospects of debtors after failure. In addition, the dissertation shows how the experiences of failed debtors and their creditors such as those studied created an impetus for reform in the agricultural and mercantile credit systems and the legal processes set up to deal with economic failure. Ultimately, the dissertation finds that while the vast majority of the individuals studied were able to find productive employment within a relatively short period of time, many were not able to totally reverse the consequences of economic failure. They were unable to regain either the wealth or income they had enjoyed before failure or that they would have enjoyed had they continued on upward trends they had experienced before failure. Furthermore, they also faced diminished opportunities for independent farm or business ownership, particularly after 1880, as it became harder to resist economic forces that were reducing the numbers of independent farmers, retailers and wholesalers. However, these same forces were also creating new middle-class jobs for salaried employees with larger manufacturing, wholesale and retail firms, railroads, utilities and government agencies and, over time, an increasing number of the individuals studied found employment in such positions. Together with the remaining but more rare opportunities for farm and business ownership, this was sufficient to keep the vast majority of the individuals studied out of long-term poverty.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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