Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff.

AuthorHoff, Samuel B.
PositionBook review

Balleisen, Edward J. Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. xiv + 479 pages. Hardcover, $43.95.

The author, an associate professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, utilizes manuscripts and collections, law journals, interviews, newspaper archives, and other sources to trace the four phases of fraud conducted by businesses in American history together with regulatory efforts to limit commercial deceit. He observes that actions taken against occupational fraud help to explain the broader history of American business regulation.

After a few introductory chapters constituting the first section, Part II includes Chapters 3 and 4 and covers the period from the 1810s to the 1880s. As the size of American businesses grew, it became apparent that state and local protections against fraud were inadequate. The Gilded Age witnessed trade groups, newspapers, and private monitoring of businesses, though few convictions of commercial personnel for fraud-related offenses.

Part III, encompassing Chapters 5 through 8, traverses the period from the 1860s to the 1930s. During this span, American society progressed in areas of law, education, and science. These sectors influenced how government approached its obligation to control crime. In addition, American government officials at all levels were impacted by moralism and religious groups. With the transition to a consumer-based society, governments became more paternalistic in oversight of business dealings. Simultaneously, anti-fraud organizations were created and joined other entities in battling business deceit. However, large companies fought back by taking advantage of ambiguities in the law and by hiring top legal representation to oppose charges of wrongdoing. In Chapter 8, Balleisen reviews the evolution of the Better Business Bureau and how the Post Office and Federal Trade Commission responded to cases of fraud.

In Part IV, which contains Chapters 9 through 11, Balleisen analyzes how regulation of business fraud fared over the duration from the 1930s to the 1970s. An impressive array of successful legislation was enacted, including the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act, the 1945 McCarron-Ferguson Act, the 1958 Auto Information Disclosure Act, and the 1966 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act among others. Amid the establishment of a White House Council on Consumer Affairs, defendants in...

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