By Elizabeth Lee Thompson
Based on a careful empirical study of nearly four thousand cases filed in three southern federal districts, this book focuses on how the Bankruptcy Act of 1867 helped shape the course and outcome of Reconstruction. Although passed by a Republican-dominated Congress that was commonly viewed as punitive toward the post-Civil War South, the Bankruptcy Act was a great benefit to southerners. In this first study of the operation of the 1867 Act, Elizabeth Lee Thompson challenges previous works, which maintain that nineteenth-century southerners uniformly opposed federal bankruptcy laws as threatening extensions of federal power. To the contrary, Thompson finds that southerners, faced with the war’s devastation, were more likely to file for bankruptcy than debtors in other parts of the country. The Act thus was the major piece of federal economic legislation that benefited southerners during Reconstruction.
Thompson determines that because the vast majority of the Bankruptcy Act’s southern beneficiaries were propertied white men, the legislation served to stabilize and entrench the postwar economic?and thus social and political?power of the sector that included those who were recently leading secessionists and Confederates. Their participation in a federal process, through federal tribunals, during an era of intense white southern opposition to policies emanating from Washington reveals the complex interaction of states' rights ideology and self-interest. However, Thompson shows, white southerners ultimately sacrificed neither in relation to the Bankruptcy Act. After thousands had received economic relief through the statute and the number of filings had slowed to a trickle, southern congressmen supported the Act’s repeal in 1878.