United in States of Uncertainty

Insurers and the Risks of the Emerging American Nation

Elisabeth Engel

This research project examines the emergence of the North American insurance industry during the Revolutionary era and the early republic. It asks how insurers were able to establish themselves as new-style experts on risk and thereby able to change their society’s notions of threat and danger. It will examine the expectations about the future that informed insurers’ understandings of risk and track the economic, political, social, and cultural uncertainties they thought could be addressed by calculation of risk.  The analysis focuses on the production and marketing of knowledge of risk; long dominant in the insurance business in Europe, the idea of taking action to counter negative events that might occur in the future gained ground in Europe’s overseas colonies during the Age of Revolutions (1750–1830). In the wake of their successful fight for independence from Great Britain, Americans established more than 300 commercial enterprises to manage the risks that came with the task of nation building. By grounding the history of risk in the context of the uncertainties particular to Britain’s North American colonies at the time of the Revolution, the project goes beyond the geographic and conceptual scope of studies focused on Europe. 

The project’s reconstruction of the emergence of the American insurance industry rests upon a data base compiled for that purpose. The data base covers the period from 1752 (the year the first insurance firm in the colonies opened) to 1840 (the point by which insurance firms had been established in each of the states and a national network of firms existed); firms are listed by name, year of founding, place of founding, and principal activity (maritime insurance, fire insurance, life insurance).  Drawing on the data base, the project will use digital tools, in particular digital cartography, to provide visual representation of the spatial and chronological development of the American insurance industry.

The study is divided into six chronologically organized chapters. Chapter One examines differences in the ways insurers in the British metropole and those in the North American colonies viewed insurability between roughly 1750 and 1770. Chapter Two analyzes the founding of the first insurance firms in the colonies as a strategy on the part of revolutionary elites to protect their wealth (1770–1790). Chapter Three focuses on the definitions of risk and security that American insurers developed for the market between 1790 and 1814. Chapter Four considers the role of insurance agents in disseminating the idea of risk in rural and urban communities between 1790 and 1820. Chapter Five analyzes the cultural construction of catastrophes – both natural and human-made – that were deemed uninsurable in the period 1800—1830. Chapter Six assesses the social stratification of insurance protection against the backdrop of nation building into the 1840s.