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MVB Senate remarks on debt imprisonment, 10 January 1828

Mr. VAN BUREN remarked, that, when an officer of the Government appropriated the money of Government to his own uses, the principle at present acknowledged, authorized an union of equity with law, to effect a distribution of his property. This was done to operate as a security. But now it was proposed to carry the principle farther, and to allow the United States, for debts contracted by individuals who became unable to pay it, to imprison him summarily. It is true, as the gentleman from Georgia says, that it is the policy of the Government to assume to itself preferenceS in the collection of its revenue. But it was immoral, impolitic, and unnatural, to allow imprisonment in order to coerce the payment of debts by persons unable to meet them. If the system now to be established, was to make a distinction between misfortune and crime, as he had hoped it would, then it was inconsistent with it to retain a clause which should still disgrace the statute book with a principle at once immoral, impolitic, and unnatural. He should, therefore, vote against the amendment.

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Mr. VAN BUREN, in reply, remarked that the gentleman from Georgia’s view of the present system was perfectly consistent with his own. He acknowledged that some preference was necessary in the collection of the revenue, where the transactions were so vast and multifarious. The United States was allowed the same privilege over the body that individuals enjoyed, only that the process was more summary. But now, a new era was to be commenced. This bill was to establish a new principle, and to draw a line of distinction between the unfortunate and the criminal. This was the whole scope of the bill now under consideration. And should they stop short of this object? Should they, in mere cases of debt, where the parties were not able to pay, allow to the United States the liberty of confining the debtor within the four walls of a prison? He hoped not: for, if such was the case, it would be a libel on the bill and its advocates, and convict them of the grossest inconsistency.

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Source: Register of Debates
Collection: N/A
Series: Series 5 (1 January 1825-3 March 1829)