Financial Freedom Suits: Bankruptcy, Race, and Citizenship in Antebellum America

This Article presents a new frame of reference for thinking about how the federal government facilitated citizenship claims by free people of color in the antebellum United States. While scholars have accounted for various ways in which free black litigants may have made such claims, they have not considered how the Bankruptcy Act of 1841 enabled overindebted free people of color to reconstruct their economic lives, thereby restoring the financial freedom that was and continues to be an essential component of American citizenship. Relying on a variety of primary sources, including manuscript court records, this Article shows how six free men of color in the Eastern District of Louisiana leveraged the economic benefit provided by the 1841 Act to reintegrate into their commercial communities and thereby protect their claims to citizenship.