Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Reconstruction of Southern Debtors: Bankruptcy after the Civil War

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Reconstruction of Southern Debtors: Bankruptcy after the Civil War

Article excerpt

The Reconstruction of Southern Debtors: Banltruptcy after the Civil War. By Elizabeth Lee Thompson. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. Pp. xvii, 198. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, tables, appendix on methodology, notes, sources, index. $39.95.)

Elizabeth Lee Thompson's The Reconstruction of Southern Debtors: Bankruptcy after the Civil War is an unassuming examination of a single piece of federal legislation that reveals much about the South during Reconstruction. The law in question, the Bankruptcy Act of 1867, survived for only eleven years before its repeal by Congress, but in that time the act helped establish an economic and political framework that would distinguish the South for the remainder of the nineteenth century.

Thompson's thesis contains four major points. First, most white southerners hailed the 1867 Bankruptcy Act as a means for debtors and creditors alike to gain relief and new opportunities following the war. second, these same southerners did not allow their general distaste for federal intervention in one of the traditional domains of state government, bankruptcy legislation, deter them from looking after their own interests. Debtors used the act, designed by a Republican Congress, to gain relief from the crushing debt they had acquired before and during the Civil War. Third, most congressmen and white southerners made a distinction between the 1867 act, which they supported, and nearly all other Reconstruction legislation, which the southerners condemned-a distinction, according to Thompson, that failed to appreciate how the act reflected the essential conservatism of many congressmen on economic matters. Finally, white southerners used the federal courts during the bankruptcy proceedings that followed the act to reassert their positions in southern society. In the final analysis, the Bankruptcy Act of 1867 "reinforced the status quo in southern class structure" by doing what it was designed to do, namely benefit the region's professionals, merchants, and large agriculturalists (p. 89).

This work is based upon a great deal of excellent research. In addition to census records, congressional documents, and manuscript material, Thompson examined nearly four thousand bankruptcy cases filed in three southern federal courts: the Eastern District of Tennessee, the District of South Carolina, and the Southern District of Mississippi. …

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