Rafael I. Pardo


Bankruptcy law has been repeatedly reinvented over time in response to changing circumstances. The Bankruptcy Act of 1841—passed by Congress to address the financial ruin caused by the Panic of 1837—constituted a revolutionary break from its immediate predecessor, the Bankruptcy Act of 1800, which was the nation’s first bankruptcy statute. Although Congress repealed the 1841 Act in 1843, the legislation lasted significantly longer than recognized by scholars. The repeal legislation permitted pending bankruptcy cases to be finally resolved pursuant to the Act’s terms. Because debtors flooded the judicially understaffed 1841 Act system with over 46,000 cases, the Act’s administration continued into the 1860s, thereby allowing further development of the law. Importantly, the system operated at a time when the role of the business of slavery in the national economy was increasingly expanding. This Article focuses on two postrepeal episodes involving legal innovation under the Act to demonstrate how an expanded periodization of its duration yields fresh insights into understanding the interaction between federal bankruptcy law and slavery: (1) the judicial constitutional settlement of voluntary bankruptcy relief, part of which occurred through a case involving a bankrupt enslaver; and (2) the practice pursuant to which some federal district courts empowered assignees—the federal court officials appointed to administer property surrendered by bankrupts in 1841 Act cases—to operate a bankrupt’s business before liquidating it, as evidenced by certain cases involving plantation owners who sought relief under the Act.