Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence

Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence

Bruce H. Mann

Language: English

Pages: 358

ISBN: 0674032411

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence

Bruce H. Mann

Language: English

Pages: 358

ISBN: 0674032411

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Debt was an inescapable fact of life in early America. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, its sinfulness was preached by ministers and the right to imprison debtors was unquestioned. By 1800, imprisonment for debt was under attack and insolvency was no longer seen as a moral failure, merely an economic setback. In Republic of Debtors, Bruce H. Mann illuminates this crucial transformation in early American society. From the wealthy merchant to the backwoods farmer, Mann tells the personal stories of men and women struggling to repay their debts and stay ahead of their creditors. He opens a window onto a society undergoing such fundamental changes as the growth of a commercial economy, the emergence of a consumer marketplace, and a revolution for independence. In addressing debt Americans debated complicated questions of commerce and agriculture, nationalism and federalism, dependence and independence, slavery and freedom. And when numerous prominent men―including the richest man in America and a justice of the Supreme Court―found themselves imprisoned for debt or forced to become fugitives from creditors, their fate altered the political dimensions of debtor relief, leading to the highly controversial Bankruptcy Act of 1800. Whether a society forgives its debtors is not just a question of law or economics; it goes to the heart of what a society values. In chronicling attitudes toward debt and bankruptcy in early America, Mann explores the very character of American society.

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Johnson to advise a creditor that, “[a]s the courts are at a distance, I think it will not be amiss to give the several debtors notice that they will be sued at the next court if they do not satisfy you before.” It was quite another for him to contemplate the same length of time and complain that debtors know how long it is before they can be sued and that the knowledge “makes them the more remiss.” Recognizing the difference, lawyers explicitly tied lenience to the court calendar. When Johnson

than in the time of the war or just after its close. Instead of growing better our affairs have been gradually growing worse. There are three houses in Charleston each of whom could sue bonds to a greater amount than all the circulating money in the country would pay. Houses and lands will not sell for a fourth of their former value. He that owes but a little though possessed of much property lives by the courtesy of his creditors for if they were to sue his property must be sacrificed and

than one Virginia gentleman-planter took stock of his finances, assessed the mounting debts and sinking resources, and concluded that he could live comfortably at less expense in Kentucky. The lists of Virginia debtors compiled for British creditors after the Revolution to assist them in collecting pre-war debts under the terms of the peace treaty recorded that debtor after debtor had “gone to Kentucke” or, even more tellingly, was “presumed gone to Kentucke,” as though the mere fact of a

debts notwithstanding, the most intricate steps in the dance were tactical. If a debtor was not inclined to pay a debt when it became due, and if the creditor was not content to let the debt lie out at interest on the same terms as before, then the dance began in earnest. What gave the interplay between debtors and creditors such urgency at this juncture was that, when the specter of failure loomed, there was no way to end the duet without leaving one party, and usually both, poorer. Even in

retrieving his losses by honest and industrious pursuits, will be cut off from the intemperate bankrupt.” While he and his fellow delegates were mulling the bankruptcy clause, Ingersoll obviously could not have known that the court would agree with him when it ruled in January . Still less could he have known that Chief Justice Thomas McKean would skip lightly over the full faith and credit clause and instead base his opinion on the “general principles” Ingersoll had argued. Nonetheless,

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