Bankrupt Slaves

95 Pages Posted: 21 Sep 2017 Last revised: 9 Jan 2018

Rafael I. Pardo

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: September 19, 2017


Responsible societies reckon with the pernicious and ugly chapters in their histories. Wherever we look around, there exist ever-present reminders of how we failed as a society in permitting the enslavement of millions of black men, women, and children in the first century of this nation’s history. No corner of society remains unstained. As such, it is incumbent on institutions to confront their involvement in this horrific past so as to fully comprehend the kaleidoscopic nature of institutional complicity in legitimating and entrenching slavery. Only by doing so can we properly continue the march of progress, finding ways to improve society, not letting the errors of our way define us, yet at the same time never forgetting them.

This Article represents a contribution toward this progress, by telling what has been, until now, an untold story about institutional complicity in antebellum slavery—that is, the story of how the federal government in the 1840s became the owner of hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves belonging to financially distressed slaveowners who sought forgiveness of debt through the federal bankruptcy process. Relying on archival court records that have not been systematically analyzed by any published scholarship, this Article tells the story of how the Bankruptcy Act of 1841 and the domestic slave trade inevitably collided to create the bankruptcy slave trade, focusing on a case study of the Eastern District of Louisiana, home to New Orleans, which was antebellum America’s largest slave market. Knowing the story of bankrupt slaves is a crucial step toward recognizing how yet another aspect of our legal system—one that has brought in its modern incarnation financial relief to millions upon millions of debtors—had deep roots in antebellum slavery.

Keywords: bankruptcy, Bankruptcy Act of 1841, slavery, domestic slave trade, legal history, race and the law

Suggested Citation

Pardo, Rafael I., Bankrupt Slaves (September 19, 2017). Forthcoming in 71 Vanderbilt Law Review (May 2018); Emory Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN:

Rafael I. Pardo (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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