MVB Senate remarks on debt imprisonment, 11 January 1828
Friday, January 11, 1828.
Mr. VAN BUREN said, that we owe it to the country to dispose, without delay, of this subject, which, for six years, has consumed so much of our time. In the first discussion on this subject, it was contended that the rights of the creditor were impaired by the provisions of the bill; it is now said of the same bill and provisions, that they give too great a power to the creditor over the debtor. Now, Sir, how stands it? The provision objected to, is, in my opinion, the most salutary contained in the bill, and both debtors and creditors would probably concur in the opinion. The provision draws a distinction between debt and crime. It subjects no one to imprisonment except those who, having the ability, want the inclination to pay their just debts. The bill provides that no one should be imprisoned on mesne process, except those who are fraudulent. Suspicion of debt is not made punishable, and on what principle of humanity and equity can you punish a man on mere suspicion of any crime? The final process is also objected to. What is that process as it stands? The creditor may confine the debtor till the debt is paid, or till he is discharged by course of law. The bill confines the debtor until he has surrendered, for the benefit of his creditors, all his property: and can you confine him any longer, except as a punishment?
There has been a time when debt was punished; but, in this age, and in this country, no one attempts to justify imprisonment for debt, except as the means of coercion to payment. But what avails coercion, after the property of the debtor is given up? The legitimate object of final process is then attained by the bill. He would also contend and show that this object was more fully attained, than by the existing laws. At present, in every different State, wide limits were secured to persons committed on final process. In the State of New York, the jail bounds extended to the limits of the country. The rich and fraudulent debtor, therefore, goes on the liberties; and lives in ease and independence, wantoning on the property of his creditors. He may, perhaps, for a little while, lay aside his coach, but not always. He was not excluded from society, nor from any luxury which money could procure, and he supposed none of the disgrace of confinement. I say, then, said Mr. V. B., that the present law for imprisonment for debt does not apply to fraudulent debtors. One object of the bill is to extend the rigors of confinement to them, and to relieve the honest debtor. It puts the dishonest debtor within the four walls, and keeps him there till disgrace, mortification, pride, and interest, shall compel him to disgorge his ill-gotten wealth. To every case of fraud his provision applies; to the disbursing officer, who is guilty of a double breach of honesty, as an officer and a man; the executer, who has betrayed the most sacred trust that can be reposed by man in his fellows; to the attorney, who has been faithless to his profession, and to the confidence of the community. If the Senator from Virginia had confined his amendment to the particular case of landholders in Virginia, he would not have opposed it. But he has pushed it to an extent which would destroy one of the best features of the bill. I have, said Mr. V. B., in my mind’s eye, many cases wherein creditors are suffering all the evils and distresses of honesty, while their debtors are luxuriating in wealth, within prison limits. There was no wish to apply the provision to Virginia landholders, and he would vote for their exemption, if, as it had been said, it bears harshly on them. He saw, however, no difficulty likely to arise from their case. They could sell or assign their lands, and thereby become entitled to the benefits of the bill. If, after judgment is obtained, they keep their property invested in lands, with a view to defeat the claims of their creditors, the provision would apply to them.
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Mr. VAN BUREN explained, and replied to the Senator from South Carolina.