Responsible societies reckon with the pernicious and ugly chapters in their histories. Wherever we look, there exist ever-present reminders of how we failed as a society in permitting the enslavement of millions of black men, women, and children during 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 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 past 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 and seller 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 recounts 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 the black men, women, and children who found themselves subjected to sale through the federal bankruptcy process 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.
Rafael I. Pardo
Robert T. Thompson Professor of Law, Emory University.