Debt is the prolific mother of folly and of crime… Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield Disraeli

The gentleman has not seen how to reply to this, otherwise than by supposing me to have advanced the doctrine that a national debt is a national blessing… Daniel Webster… Second Speech on Foot’s Resolution, Jan. 26, 1830

offered in 1829 by Samuel Augustus Foot in the U.S. Senate. This resolution instructed the committee on public lands to inquire into the limiting of public land sale. The Jacksonian Democrats, who wished to encourage migration to the West, opposed the resolution; the New England manufacturing interests, who demanded a ready labor supply, backed it. When the Foot Resolution was introduced, the advocates of states’ rights saw an opportunity to coalesce with the interests of the West. This touched off (1830) the dramatic debates between Robert Hayne and Daniel Webster.

 The argument over debt, land acquisition and the “freedom” embraced by the pioneer movement can not be separated and it is finally this boom and bust nature of American society – both the need and the willingness to always start over – that informs our attitudes towards debt. The frontier however has closed – it has been closed for more than a century – and if we are to have stability we must inform ourselves again about debt lest we finally be reduced to a fiat currency.
Mann has done a very good job with the history but although he might resent the label he is apparently a Bourbon since he has forgotten nothing and learned nothing in the process – I am surprised he is not in charge of a presidential commission.

Republic of debtors : bankruptcy in the age of American independence    Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2002 Bruce H. Mann Bankruptcy United States Colonial period Hardcover.     viii, 344 p. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [265]-338) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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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