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The evolution of bankruptcy laws in the United States began in England in the sixteenth century. At that time, debtors who would not, or could not, pay their debts unhappily found themselves in debtors prison. By the eighteenth century, public sentiment was shifting with the realization that imprisoning debtors was not only cruel, it also prevented creditors from ever getting paid. New laws developed that allowed debts to be reduced or forgiven in exchange for the debtor’s efforts to repay them.

Before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, colonies in the United States followed the earlier, punitive English laws that imprisoned debtors. States developed their own laws regarding debtors after 1776, but these laws lacked uniformity. The U.S. Constitution in 1789 charged Congress with enacting laws concerning bankruptcy and the Bankruptcy Act of 1800 became the country’s first uniform bankruptcy law.

But three years after its enactment, Congress repealed the 1800 law over public sentiment that disfavored its emphasis on creditor rights. Congress struggled during the next century to strike the delicate balance between protecting debtors and repaying creditors. In 1841, Congress for the first time permitted debtors to choose whether to obtain bankruptcy relief rather than being forced to do so. Other bankruptcy laws came and went, but the Bankruptcy Act of 1898 and its many amendments lasted for eighty years and became the model for current bankruptcy laws in the United States. The 1898 act established special bankruptcy courts and bankruptcy trustees, charged with the duty of overseeing bankruptcy liquidations and financial restructuring. The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 replaced the 1898 act and, along with amendments passed in 1984, 1986, 1994, and 2005, this act is known as the bankruptcy code. The 2005 changes, which fall under the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA), introduced what many experts consider to be among the most sweeping changes to personal bankruptcy law, particularly for those who seek to liquidate their debts.

Inside History