Global Humanities Junior Research and Teaching Stay at Johns Hopkins University
July - October 2014
Covered by Insurance: A History of Contingent Risk in America, 1770s-1830s
On June 26, 1752, long before signing the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin got insured. He purchased two policies for protecting his rental properties from the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, a company he had helped to found and which was the first of its kind in colonial America. According to Franklin, insurance was not simply a contract whereby one party agreed to pay the losses of another. It had to do with the idea that “every man might help another without any disservice to himself.” Framed as a venerable business enterprise, the Philadelphia Contributionship was the first company that commodified ‘risk’ in revolutionary America.
This project aims to explore the role notions of ‘risk’ played in shaping early American culture. Covering the years between 1770 and 1840, the time in which the American nation consolidated its independence, Elisabeth Engel seeks to trace the forms, sites and cultural representations of ‘risk’ by analyzing the nascent domestic insurance industry. The outlines of this study are determined by the spread of insurance agencies across the urban centers of the east coast – Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Boston and New Orleans – and by the people and things that became covered by insurances, ranging from slaves to staples, and from valuables to debts. My prime research objective is to reveal the impact of commercial practices of mitigating ‘risk’ outside of the offices of insurance agents. Why did risk become marketable? Which groups were addressed as being imperiled? Which uncertainties – fire, natural disaster, death, business failure etc. – were constructed and coded as ‘risky’? Following these lines of inquiry, the project draws on a diverse body of sources, including statistics of probabilities, merchant correspondences and the illustration of risk in advertisements. This diversity of primary material helps to illuminate the complex ways in which notions of risk were constructed, traded and inscribed into the everyday routines of revolutionary Americans.
Elisabeth Engel studied at the Graduate School of North American Studies of the John F. Kennedy Institute (Freie Universität Berlin), and holds a Doctoral degree in Modern History. In 2007, she took her M.A. in Political Science, English Philology and Anglo-American History at the University of Cologne. Her visiting and teaching stays include the Université de Montréal, QC, Canada; the Columbia University, New York; and the Universität Kassel.
Elisabeth Engel will teach a seminar within the Global Humanities Campus entitled Race in Space.