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Aug 15, 2009 9:32 am

NEW YORKER on Bankruptcy and Debtors' Prison

A recent issue of the New Yorker (April 13, 2009) has an excellent article by Jill Lepore. Entitled"I.O.U.: How We Used to Treat Debtors," it reviews the evolution in both Britain and the United States from debtors' prison to bankruptcy. My only disappointment is that she neglected to mention that Kentucky became the first state to eliminate all imprisonment for debt (except for fraud) under the leadership of that great Jacksonian radical, Colonel Richard M. Johnson, who went on to regularly propose similar legislation in Congress and eventually served as Martin Van Buren's Vice President. The link to the article is here, but unfortunately it is gated.

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Jeffrey Rogers Hummel - 5/16/2009

Thanks for the information. This aspect had not occurred to me.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel - 5/16/2009

Hailing from Kentucky, Richard Mentor Johnson was a slaveholder, yet hardly one who made his fellow slaveholders comfortable. Johnson had violated the color line by openly living with his mulatto housekeeper, Julia Chinn, and acknowledging their two daughters, who were educated, married white men, and given some of his land. After Chinn died from cholera in 1833, Johnson's scandalous behavior continued with two successive black mistresses who were sisters. More "genteel" slaveholders from Virginia and elsewhere therefore opposed his vice-presidential nomination in 1836. Consequently, he did not receive as many electoral votes as Van Buren, and only became vice-president after the choice was thrown into the Senate.

By 1840, Johnson's flexible attitude toward race relations was becoming less acceptable even on the frontier, and Andrew Jackson urged Van Buren to dump him. Yet Johnson remained very popular for other reasons. He presumably had killed Tecumseh at the Battle of Thames during the War of 1812 (although Johnson also later established the Choctaw Academy for Indians). His opposition to imprisonment for debt, defense of religious freedom and Sunday mail delivery, advocacy of settler's rights to land, and views on money won him popular support, especially among the Locofocos of New York. I don't know his position on Texas annexation, but I presume as a party loyalist he followed Van Buren's lead in opposing it.

Van Buren managed to derail the 1840 effort to have the Democrats nominate a more conventional Southern slaveholder for vice-president, such as James Knox Polk of Tennessee or John Forsyth of Georgia. The party convention named no candidate. The choice was thus left to the states. Polk and Forsyth withdrew, and Johnson remained the dominant Democratic vice presidential candidate in Van Buren's failure to win reelection.

Aziz - 5/15/2009

thanks for the information...

david t. beito - 5/14/2009

How did Johnson stand on the slavery issue and annexation of Texas?

Justin Bowen - 5/14/2009

Both you and the writer of the article are wrong. Debtor's prison still exists today. Plenty of men are thrown into jail, and sometimes prison, for no other reason than for failing to pay child support to the state, regardless of whether or not they are actually ABLE to pay child support.

Something tells me that if you were to go to them and tell them that debtor's prisons were abolished in the 19th century they might have a few choice words for you and for the author of that piece.

Here are a few articles that highlight some examples of the modern debtor's prison system at work (pay special attention to the stories about the guy who was arrested for failure to pay child support while being held hostage during the first Gulf War and the men who killed themselves after being imprisoned for failing to pay child support):

Here, Dr. Helen discusses debtor's prison in the context of the current recession with Glenn Sacks: