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November 8, 2023 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm CST

Speaker Series: Felipe Ford Cole and Brittany Farr

Law, Boston College Law School and New York University School of Law
Public and Private Bonds: Debt and Slavery in the Antebellum South
Felipe Ford Cole and Brittany Farr
Hybrid: Virtual/In-Person (ABF Offices, 750 N Lake Shore Drive, 4th Floor Chicago, IL)

This paper revises histories of nineteenth century capitalism by attending to the continuities between public and private debt in antebellum Mississippi. The conceptual distinction between public and private debt has long reigned over the financial and legal history of the midcentury Antebellum south. To historians, public debt appears in this period as the brief and contentious subject of politics, enlivening the rise of the Democratic party and transformation of state constitutions. Private debt takes shape as the antecedent condition to the planter foreclosures that sharpened the reasoning for secession.

By contrast, the paper traverses the conceptual boundaries of public and private debt in this era. Cole and Farr begin with a series of public debts—issued in the form of state bonds to agricultural banks—that were used to support and expand the private credit of planters. When the Mississippi state government refused to repay these bonds during the economic depression of 1837-42, it forced many planters into insolvency, transforming them into delinquent debtors to the state. In the ensuing foreclosures, creditor banks auctioned off many enslaved women, men, and children, causing enslaved families to be torn apart and scattered to satisfy debts.

The history that they trace points toward a direct connection between debt and racial harm. Mississippi’s mismanaged public debt exacted the greatest cost from enslaved Black families, who were separated to satisfy private debts to state creditors. The violence of this family separation benefitted enslavers by reducing morale and discouraging resistance, which in turn benefitted a state whose economy relied upon slave labor. By drawing out the connection between Mississippi’s public and private debt, and between this debt and family separation, Cole and Farr show one of the ways in which debt and racial violence are intimately intertwined, a relationship that they contend is central to racial capitalism.

To register, contact Sophie Kofman at skofman@abfn.org


Felope Ford ColeFelipe Ford Cole joined Boston College Law School as an Assistant Professor of Law in 2022. He studies how the law shapes the balance between sovereign power and the power conferred to private capital in local, national, and international contexts. As a comparative legal historian, Professor Cole’s research focuses on the historical evolution of this balance in the U.S. and Latin America.

Cole’s current research explores the evolution of public debt markets and the theory of sovereignty in the U.S. and Latin America and reexamines the origins of the core doctrines of international investment law. Professor Cole’s work has been published or is forthcoming in the University of Chicago Law Review and in edited volumes published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press.

Before coming to Boston College Law, Cole was a Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Professor Cole earned a J.D. from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and is completing a Ph.D. in History at Northwestern University. He also earned an M.Phil. in Latin American Studies from the University of Cambridge and a B.A. in History from New York University.

Brittany FaBrittany Farrrr is an Assistant Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. She joined NYU from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was a Sharswood Fellow.

Farr is a scholar of private law and race. With more than a decade of interdisciplinary training, her research draws on history, legal theory, and cultural studies to theorize how marginalized populations have availed themselves of otherwise inhospitable legal regimes. In particular, her research focuses on enslaved and free African Americans’ use of contract law during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and interrogates the ways in which contract law mediated African Americans’ relationship to bodily autonomy, economic freedom, and legal agency both during and after slavery. Her writing has appeared in UCLA Law Review, University of Chicago Law Review Online, and many other academic publications. Farr has also co-authored policy reports on mental health and banking, as well as on gender and mass incarceration.

Farr earned a J.D. from Yale Law School in 2019 and was a recipient of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund’s Earl Warren Scholarship, which is awarded to law students with a demonstrated commitment to racial justice. Prior to law school, Farr earned a Ph.D. in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation, “Reproducing Fear Amid Fears of Reproduction: The Black Maternal Body in U.S. Law, Media, and Policy,” examined how persistent fears about Black motherhood and reproduction have shaped certain laws, public health campaigns, and popular culture. Her first chapter, which theorizes slavery as a reproductive technology, received the Louise Kerckhoff Prize for Best Graduate Paper from USC’s Center for Feminist Research.

Farr’s interest in the interplay between law and culture was sparked as a Folklore & Mythology major while an undergraduate at Harvard College.