Embracing its benefits : southerners before the Federal bankruptcy courts and the conservative facets of reconstruction
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The two principal aims of this study are to grant insight into the complex relationship of southerners and the federal government during Reconstruction and to reconsider the role that federal economic legislation—in particular, bankruptcy legislation—played in the South after the Civil War. Using empirical data derived from reviewing thousands of bankruptcy case files, this study maintains that two central contentions that underlie scholarly assessments of nineteenth century bankruptcy legislation in the United States oversimplify or are inapplicable to the operation of the Bankruptcy Act of 1867 in the South: first, that the law was a failure and, second, that political ideology and regional concerns resulted in southerners’ consistent, intense opposition to federal bankruptcy legislation. This work asserts four central contentions. First, the 1867 Bankruptcy Act was not a failure from the perspective of white southerners; rather, it represented a well-timed source of relief and opportunity. White residents of the South embraced the law right after its passage, flocked to the courts to file for voluntary bankruptcy even more frequently than filers nationwide in the late 1860s, and—viewing the law as properly a temporary measure to address the exceptional commercial turmoil that followed the Civil War—supported its repeal in 1878. Second, ideological concerns about federal intrusion did not govern the practical workings of the act in the South. Pressing economic needs of southerners overrode ideological aversions to associating with the federal government. Third, bankruptcy filings portray the complex role of the southern federal courts during Reconstruction. These tribunals were not simply enforcers of punitive federal legislation in the South (a role that various scholars have well-documented); they were also instruments that southerners used for their benefit: to sue, to collect claims from the government, and to file for bankruptcy. Fourth, although congressmen and southerners depicted the 1867 Bankruptcy Act as distinct from Reconstruction legislation, the effects of the act were integrally related to the outcome of Reconstruction. Because the primary beneficiaries of bankruptcy relief were established property owners, the act served to stabilize and entrench the class and race structure of southern society after the Civil War.