Risks Will Be Taken

Insurance and the Insecure Beginnings of American Independence, 1770s-1840s

Elisabeth Engel

On June 26, 1752, long before signing the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin got insured. He purchased two policies for his rental apartments from the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, the pioneering company he helped to found in British North America. According to Franklin, the core idea was to offer a way whereby "every man might help another without any disservice to himself." The idea found its followers. Many more insurance companies would soon join the Contributionship in making "risks" one of the top-selling commodities of the American Revolution.

In my project Risks Will Be Taken, I analyze the nascent domestic insurance industry in the years between 1770 and 1840. The contours of this research are defined by the paths that insurers took from the urban centers of the Northeast into the rural South and by the people and objects they claimed to protect, ranging from slaves to staples, and from valuables to debts. The goal of this analysis, however, is broader than tracing the history of the business. I argue that the ways in which insurers constructed risks - by defining assessment procedures, types, locations, prices, public representations, and so on - reveal the emergence of the imperiled subject as a new cultural trend in early American society.

"Too Enterprising American Capitalist Keep up the game! I can lose nothing - I'm heavily insured..." Bernhard Gillam illustration from Puck January 24, 1888.

To bring this trend into focus my project resorts to primary material that was produced by both insurers and insured, including actuarial tables, business correspondence, advertisements, and personal letters and applications. The diversity of sources provides the means to trace how business strategies were translated in peoples' minds and how they altered peoples' routines and self-perceptions. The questions that guide the project are: Who was addressed as being imperiled? Why did risk become marketable to them? Which uncertainties - fire, horse theft, runaway slaves, death, business failure etc. - were constructed and coded as risky for them? How did insurance policies reinforce difference according to people's location, possessions, occupation, health, sex, age, or race? What material assets were, or were not, insured because they were seen as being at risk? And how did insurance requirements, such as fire escapes and medical attention, transform the lives and environments of insured and uninsured people?

More broadly, this study aims to argue that the history of risk in North America was framed by the difficulties entailed in ending British colonial rule and achieving independence. Focusing on risk highlights the fears and insecurities that spurred a desire for protection during the revolution and offers a perspective on the imperial networks and structures that provided such protection. By tracing how newly emerging local uncertainties linked Americans to potentially global security communities, this study engages scholarship that attempts to return attention to the transnational dimensions of U.S. history and the country's postcolonial condition.