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America Is Turning Into One Big Prison for People in Debt

From debtor’s prison to debtor nation.

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The World of Debtor’s Prisons

Imprisonment for debt was a commonplace in colonial America and the early republic, and wasn’t abolished in most states until the 1830s or 1840s, in some cases not until after the Civil War.  Today, we think of it as a peculiar and heartless way of punishing the poor -- and it was.  But it was more than that.

Some of the richest, most esteemed members of society also ended up there, men like Robert Morris, who helped finance the American Revolution and ran the Treasury under the Articles of Confederation; John Pintard, a stock-broker, state legislator, and founder of the New York Historical Society; William Duer, graduate of Eton, powerful merchant and speculator, assistant secretary in the Treasury Department of the new federal government, and master of a Hudson River manse; a Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge; army generals; and other notables.

Whether rich or poor, you were there for a long stretch, even for life, unless you could figure out some way of discharging your debts.  That, however, is where the similarity between wealthy and impoverished debtors ended.

Whether in the famous Marshalsea in London where Charles Dickens had Little Dorritt’s father incarcerated (and where Dickens’s father had actually languished when the author was 12), or in the New Gaol in New York City, where men like Duer and Morris did their time, debtors prisons were segregated by class.  If your debts were large enough and your social connections weighty enough (the two tended to go together) you lived comfortably.  You were supplied with good food and well-appointed living quarters, as well as books and other pleasures, including on occasion manicurists and prostitutes. 

Robert Morris entertained George Washington for dinner in his “cell.” Once released, he resumed his career as the new nation’s richest man.  Before John Pintard moved to New Gaol, he redecorated his cell, had it repainted and upholstered, and shipped in two mahogany writing desks.

Meanwhile, the mass of petty debtors housed in the same institution survived, if at all, amid squalor, filth, and disease.  They were often shackled, and lacked heat, clean water, adequate food, or often food of any kind.  (You usually had to have the money to buy your own food, clothing, and fuel.)  Debtors in these prisons frequently found themselves quite literally dying of debt.  And you could end up in such circumstances for trivial sums.  Of the 1,162 jailed debtors in New York City in 1787, 716 owed less than twenty shillings or one pound.  A third of Philadelphia’s inmates in 1817 were there for owing less than $5, and debtors in the city’s prisons outnumbered violent criminals by 5:1.  In Boston, 15% of them were women.  Shaming was more the point of punishment than anything else.

Scenes of public pathos were commonplace.  Inmates at the New Gaol, if housed on its upper floors, would lower shoes out the window on strings to collect alms for their release.  Other prisons installed “beggar gates” through which those jailed in cellar dungeons could stretch out their palms for the odd coins from passersby.

Poor and rich alike wanted out.  Pamphleteering against the institution of debtor’s prison began in the 1750s.  An Anglican minister in South Carolina denounced the jails, noting that “a person would be in a better situation in the French King’s Gallies, or the Prisons of Turkey or Barbary than in this dismal place.”  Discontent grew.  A mass escape from New Gaol of 40 prisoners armed with pistols and clubs was prompted by extreme hunger. 

In the 1820s and 1830s, as artisans, journeymen, sailors, longshoremen, and other workers organized the early trade union movement as well as workingmen’s political parties, one principal demand was for the abolition of imprisonment for debt.  Inheritors of a radical political culture, their complaints echoed that Biblical tradition of Jubilee mentioned in Leviticus, which called for a cancellation of debts, the restoration of lost houses and land, and the freeing of slaves and bond servants every 50 years.

 
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