7/4/12 - the revolution and debt relief

In today's encore excerpt - the American Revolution was a form of debt relief:

"In England, statutes decreeing imprisonment for debt date to the thirteenth century. The point wasn't to lock you up—as the proverb had it, 'A prison pays no debts'—but to terrify you into paying, to avoid incarceration. Nine times out of ten, that's just what happened, which is why the practice prevailed in most parts of the early modern world and, in the seventeenth century, travelled, with English common law, to America. A 1641 Massachusetts law known as the 'Body of Liberties' closely followed English practice, declaring of the insolvent that 'his person may be arrested and imprisoned where he shall be kept at his owne charge, not the plantife's till satisfaction be made.' ... There were no terms: you weren't sentenced for a month, a year, a decade; you stayed in jail until your creditors were satisfied.

"This didn't work that well in the New World. As many as two out of every three Europeans who came to the colonies were debtors on arrival: they paid for their passage by becoming indentured servants. Early on, labor was so scarce that colonists who fell into debt once they got here paid with work; there was much to be done, and there weren't many prisons. In 1674, a Massachusetts court ordered Joseph Armitage, who owed John Ruck twenty-two pounds, to serve as Ruck's servant for seven years. (What relieved the colonies' labor scarcity and spelled the end of debtor servitude was the rise of the African slave trade.) The colonies were also a good place to go to run away from your debts. Some colonies were, basically, debtors' asylums. In 1642, Virginia, eager to lure settlers, promised five years protection from any debts contracted in the Old World. North Carolina did the same in 1669. Creditors, in any case, found it all but impossible to pursue fugitive debtors across the Atlantic. (Not for nothing did Defoe's Moll Flanders, born in London's Newgate Prison, sail to Virginia.) Then, there was an early version of a farm subsidy: Connecticut and Maryland forbade the prosecution of debtors between May and October and released prisoners to plant and harvest on the unassailable argument that 'the Porest Sort of the Inhabitants' were often 'undone in that they cannot be at Liberty to make their Cropps.' ...

"In London, debtors' prisons filled. And then they teemed. James Oglethorpe, a member of Parliament, ... had an idea: what about just shipping the miserable wretches across the ocean? In 1732, he founded Georgia, a colony intended as a refuge for debtors released from English prisons.

"This only strengthened a prevailing perception: that the colonies' relationship with England was that of a debtor to a creditor. By the seventeen-sixties, sympathy for debtors had attached itself to the patriot cause. Weren't all Americans debtors? Whenever New York's Sons of Liberty held a banquet, they made a show of sending the leftovers to the city's imprisoned debtors. Virginia planters like Jefferson and Washington were monstrously in debt to merchants in London. A creditor was 'lord of another man's purse'; hadn't the British swindled Americans out of their purses, their independence, their manhood? This, anyway, is how many colonists came to view their economic dependence on Britain. Declaring independence was a way of canceling those debts. The American Revolution, some historians have argued, was itself a form of debt relief. ...

"Debtors in New York used to be locked up in the garret of City Hall, at the corner of Wall Street, in a cramped nook under the eaves. From its dormers, they would lower shoes, tied to a string, to collect alms from passersby. (Debtors' prisons in other cities and towns had what were called 'beggars' grates,' iron bars through which prisoners in cellar dungeons could extend outstretched palms.)"


Jill Lepore




The New Yorker


April 13, 2009


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