The United States has always proved an inviting home for boosters, sharp dealers, and outright swindlers. Worship of entrepreneurial freedom has complicated the task of distinguishing aggressive salesmanship from unacceptable deceit, especially on the frontiers of innovation. At the same time, competitive pressures have often nudged respectable firms to embrace deception. As a result, fraud has been a key feature of American business since its beginnings. In this sweeping narrative, Edward Balleisen traces the history of fraud in America—and the evolving efforts to combat it—from the age of P. T. Barnum through the eras of Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff.
Starting with an early nineteenth-century American legal world of "buyer beware," this unprecedented account describes the slow, piecemeal construction of modern regulatory institutions to protect consumers and investors, from the Gilded Age through the New Deal and the Great Society. It concludes with the more recent era of deregulation, which has brought with it a spate of costly frauds, including the savings and loan crisis, corporate accounting scandals, and the recent mortgage-marketing debacle.
By tracing how Americans have struggled to foster a vibrant economy without enabling a corrosive level of fraud, this book reminds us that American capitalism rests on an uneasy foundation of social trust.
Edward J. Balleisen is associate professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
"Balleisen's lucid, engagingly written mix of institutional and legal history, behavioral economics, and entertaining anecdotes illuminates this land of bilk and money."--Publishers Weekly
"Balleisen casts a gimlet eye on the passing parade of hucksters and charlatans, peppering a narrative long on theory with juicy asides that build toward a comprehensive catalog of ‘Old Swindles in New Jargon'. . . . Ranging among the disciplines of history, economics, and psychology, Balleisen constructs a sturdy narrative of the many ways in which we have fallen prey to the swindler, and continue to do so, as well as of how American society and its institutions have tried to build protections against the con. But these protections eventually run up against accusations of violating ‘longstanding principles of due process,' since the bigger the con, the more lawyers arrayed behind it."--Kirkus
"Meticulously researched and completely fascinating."--Melissa Jacoby, Credit Slips
"An ambitious exploration of two centuries’ worth of swindles, bogus stock schemes and corporate crime. [Balleisen’s] keen insights and the breadth of his knowledge keep the reader engaged, and he introduces plenty of shady characters and ingenious fraudulent schemes to boot."--Dean Jobb, Chicago Review of Books
"Balleisen . . . provides a lively and informative account of chicanery in the United States in the past 200 years."--Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World
"Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff lives up to its title as a chronicle of American con men and their brilliant, morally bankrupt schemes throughout history. . . . Researched with scholarly detail, yet thoroughly accessible to readers of all backgrounds, Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff is as engrossing as it is educational! Highly recommended."--Midwest Book Review
Table of Contents