Carole Owens | Commentary: When debtors' prisons grew


STOCKBRIDGE — Columnist Nicholas Christoff (America's Modern Day Debtors' Prisons, Berkshire Eagle, June 14, 2015) wrote: "By the 1830s the civilized world closed them recognizing debtors' prisons as barbaric but also silly. The one way to ensure that a person cannot repay a debt is to lock him up."

Yet there was a time when debtors' prisons flourished in Europe, in England, and in the United States.

In the eighteenth century, Berkshire County was at the center of spiraling incarcerations for debt and also at the center of the first steps to end the practice. One of the underlying causes of Shays' Rebellion (1886-87) was the debtors' prisons.

Shays' Rebellion seemed "mad" to George Washington, but it made sense in a state where the debt was exorbitant and the plan was to pay it by taxing most heavily the poorest citizens. Inflation made Continental currency almost worthless. The government delayed payment of overdue wages and pensions to Revolutionary War soldiers. People were already bartering for necessities and there was no way to pay mortgages or taxes.

From those in default, courts seized farms or threw them in debtors' prisons where they languished without any means to repay the obligations. Debtors could only wait to be bailed out by friends or relatives who were either sympathetic to their plight or embarrassed by it.

If the courts seized land and imprisoned people then it made sense to close the courts — by violence if necessary — to stop the injustice. The idea spread from Massachusetts to Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York.

In 1786 there were three debtors listed in Berkshire County for failure to pay taxes: Peter Wilcox Jr., John Bly, and Charles Rose. The following year there was at least one: Jason Parmenter. They were jailed and the county jails were described as "dark and filthy". The sentence for debt was described as "hopeless and endless".

The number in prison grew exponentially. In 1786 debtors in prison outnumbered criminals by 3-to-1. As imprisonments spread like an epidemic, fear and depression engulfed Western Massachusetts. Shays and his followers were not the only ones who blamed the courts and an unfeeling or corrupt government; today historians do, too. Like debtors' prisons themselves, the economic crisis was created by government practices that were inhumane and even silly. While Washington was calling the rebels "mad"; the rebels called the government officials, "thieves, knaves, and robbers".

The serious trouble in Massachusetts started as early as February 1782 in Pittsfield. Mob actions disturbed the peace of several Berkshire towns. The immediate target of the Pittsfield agitators was the local court, which they temporarily closed by barring the door to members of the bench. A court that did not sit could not process foreclosures, pass judgments on debts, or confiscate property for defaulted taxes. It could not jail anyone for debt. In Berkshire and elsewhere in Massachusetts, crowds were told to "go to the wood pile and get clubs to knock their wigs off" (referring to the wigs that judges wore in court.)

Two groups were blamed by petitioners: the merchants and professional men, who enjoyed an unfair advantage within the tax system; and the lawyers and judges who seemed to profit from the debtors' woes.

Instead of recognizing the validity of such protests, the Massachusetts legislature countered with a temporary suspension of habeas corpus and imposed new and higher court costs. They did authorize foodstuffs and lumber to be accepted in lieu of money. So on the Federal level Washington turned a deaf ear, Jefferson denigrated the revolt, and Massachusetts legislators rubbed salt in the wounds, but some were listening.

On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention began its deliberations at Independence Hall, Philadelphia. They grappled with the very problems that prompted Shays' Rebellion: currency regulation, debts and contracts, and ways to thwart domestic insurrection.

The uprising in Massachusetts was fresh in their minds and the Constitution reflected the determination of the Founding Fathers to do all they could to prevent future rebellions. After his first reading of the Constitution, Jefferson said, "our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts. "

Today probably no one is planning to knock over the arsenal at Springfield and run amok in the streets. On the other hand the populists in both parties, those who no longer trust the government and can no longer stand the economic inequities of the status quo, have voted their anger in the primaries and may continue to do so in the general election.

Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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