Early Debtors Faced Jail at Own Expense Until All Was Repaid

Monday, January 30th, 2006

If you think a small-business loan is risky, look at how it used to be. From Early Debtors Faced Jail at Own Expense Until All Was Repaid:

One piece of baggage America’s first settlers carried with them from England was the belief that not repaying one’s debts was a moral failure. As in England, the colonists’ penalty for such wickedness was often prison.

The theory behind jailing debtors was that the threat of incarceration might persuade them to reveal hidden assets. Or their families might take pity and pay their ransom. But if the debtor was truly penniless, he could be sentenced to what amounted to life in prison. Unlike murderers, rapists and thieves, the debtors were also responsible for paying their own upkeep, thus putting them even further into debt.

As a 16th-century English judge declared, ‘If a debtor can’t feed and clothe himself, let him die, in the name of God, if he will and impute the cause of it to his own fault, for his presumption and ill behavior brought him to that imprisonment.’

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