The Problem of Trust in the Age of Contract
Taking Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857) as a point of departure, this essay explores the perils of trusting too much or too little in the representations of strangers in a burgeoning capitalist society. It attends in particular to the “natural struggle between charity and prudence” that was exhibited not only by fictional passengers on the steamboat Fidèle but also by their real-life counterparts in nineteenth-century American courtrooms, where alleged con men and women were more than occasionally called to account for their questionable moneymaking ventures. While many of the era’s imaginative writers figured the law and its enforcers as marginal and ill equipped to meet the challenges posed by fraudsters, contemporary court records tell a different story, revealing the ways members of the bench and bar endeavored to police the ambiguous borderlands between capitalism and crime.
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