Abstract: Every Man His Own Avenger: Distress, Debt, and Landlord-Tenant Law in the Nineteenth Century

Adam Wolkoff


Landlord-tenant law was integral to credit relations in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. Through the common law or statutory "distress" remedy, landlords could seize personal property located on their tenants' premises without a court order to satisfy a rent default. By understanding how distress operated, historians can gain new insight into urban and rural development, the growth of credit markets and bankruptcy rules. Indeed, the role of the crop lien in the postbellum South is well known, but few historians link its development to the struggle for priority among landlords, tenants, and third parties in Northern residential and commercial leases. In these battles, opponents of distress cried foul, claiming that the remedy allowed "a landlord to be his own avenger." Using legal treatises, case law, and newspapers, I find this characterization to be an exaggeration in the North, but representative of everyday practice on Jim Crow-era farms and plantations.