Federally Funded Slaving
67 Pages Posted: 5 Oct 2018 Last revised: 4 Mar 2019
Date Written: September 12, 2018
This Article presents a new frame of reference for thinking about the federal government’s complicity in supporting the domestic slave trade in the antebellum United States. While scholars have accounted for several methods of such support, they have failed to consider how federal bankruptcy legislation during the 1840s functionally created a system of direct financial grants to slave traders in the form of debt discharges. Relying on a variety of primary sources, including manuscript court records that have not been systematically analyzed by any published scholarship, this Article shows how the Bankruptcy Act of 1841 enabled severely indebted slave traders to reconstruct their financial lives and thus return to the business of enslaving black men, women, and children. Knowing this legal history gives us a richer understanding of the federalization of American slavery and its role in the development of the nation’s economy.
Keywords: Bankruptcy, Bankruptcy Act of 1841, Slavery, Domestic Slave Trade, Legal History, Race and the Law
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