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Legal History

Creating an American Property Law: Alienability and Its Limits in American History

This article analyzes an issue central to the economic and political development of the early United States: laws protecting real property from the claims of creditors. Traditional English law, protecting inheritance, shielded a debtor’s land from the reach of creditors in two respects. An individual’s freehold interest in land was exempted from the claims of unsecured creditors both during life and in inheritance proceedings. In addition, even when land had been explicitly pledged as collateral in mortgage agreements, chancery court procedures imposed substantial costs on creditors using legal process to seize the land. American property law, however, emerged in the context of colonialism and the dynamics of the Atlantic economy. In 1732, to advance the economic interests of English merchants, Parliament enacted a sweeping statute, the Act for the More Easy Recovery of Debts in His Majesty’s Plantations and Colonies in America, which required that real property, houses, and slaves be treated as legally equivalent to chattel property for the purpose of satisfying debts in all of the British colonies in America and the West Indies. This statute substantially dismantled the legal framework of the English inheritance system by giving unsecured creditors priority to a deceased’s land over heirs. The Act also required that the courts hold auctions to sell both slaves and real property to satisfy debts in most colonies. More broadly, this legal transformation likely led to greater commodification of real property, the expansion of slavery, and more capital for economic development. American landholders, however, were subjected to greater financial risk than would have been the case in the absence of the Act.

The Act for the More Easy Recovery of Debts was reenacted by most, but not all, state legislatures in the founding era. One legacy of the colonial era was that, through the 1840s, most states exempted only minimal amounts of property from creditors’ claims. Tensions relating to creditors’ remedies, both between the states and the federal government and between states with differing policies, had important consequences for American federalism. The history of creditors’ claims to real property in the colonial and founding periods is important to understanding the emergence of an American property law, the economic development of the colonies and states, the expansion of slavery, and American federalism.