Saturday, February 28, 2009

Millard Fillmore, Bankruptcy Reformer

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to "establish . . . uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States." This power went largely unused, however, until 1898. Congress passed a bankruptcy act in 1800, only to repeal it three years later. A second federal bankruptcy act passed in 1841 lasted eighteen months.

Faced with congressional inaction, some states stepped into the breach, most notably New York. Young Millard Fillmore was first elected to the New York State assembly as an Anti-Mason in 1828. In 1831, he was serving his third one-year term. At the time, New York retained a debtors' prison law that authorized creditors to have defaulted debtors sent to jail.

In 1831, Fillmore engineered the passage of New York's first bankruptcy law, which eliminated debt imprisonment (and freed debtors already in jail) and established rules for discharge of debtors. As Millard's biographer Robert J. Rayback tells it, Fillmore maneuvered himself into the chairmanship of a special committee, carefully drafted a bill, with help from a fellow Anti-Mason in the state senate, that would appeal to both debtor and creditor interests, and pushed the bill through the legislature by allowing the Democrats -- who had a three-to-one majority -- to take credit for it.

Rayback comments:
The artistry of the actor and demand for the limelight seldom guided Fillmore's behavior but his understanding of the role of public officials frequently did. The American scene required harmonization of its discordant groups, and responsibility for the task belonged to the practitioners of politics. Twenty years later, when he truly became a statesman, few men understood better than he this highest purpose of politics. Yet even here . . . in the youth of his career, he was beginning to appreciate and accept the role.


  1. This is true. Fillmore was a brilliant tactician. Without his skill, the Compromise(s) of 1850 would never have become law. Whether that's a good thing or a bad is a separate question.

  2. Prof.,

    I absolutely agree that they are two separate questions. I have discussed my thoughts on the latter question at Was the Compromise of 1850 a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts!


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