Traditionally under English law debtors were dealt with quite harshly. The goods of debtors were routinely subject to confiscation and distribution to creditors on a pro rata basis on the size of the debt owed. Debtors could be branded by courts for failure to pay creditors and even subject to mutilation by court order. Colonial America shared to the full this legacy of being hard on those who failed to pay their bills. One common way to collect a debt was to bring suit to have a debtor imprisoned until he paid his debt. This judicial kidnaping proceeded under the assumption that family members would pay the debts of the imprisoned debtor in order to ensure his release. The debtor was held liable for the cost of his food and lodging while in the prison.
A great deal of outrage was directed towards this pernicious institution. Dr. Samuel Johnson spoke for many in England and America when he wrote: “…nor can I look with equal hatred upon him, who, at the hazard of his life, holds out his pistol and demands my purse, as on him who plunders under the shelter of law, and by detaining my son or my friend in prison, extorts from me the price of their liberty.”
Due to the ups and downs of economic fortune all strata of society were potentially subject to debtors prison. Two of the Founding Fathers, James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and one of the first United States Supreme Court Justices, and Robert Morris, who helped finance the Revolution and signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, both served time in debtor’s prisons near the ends of their life, their predicaments caused by unwise land speculations. Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, hero of the Revolution and father of Robert E. Lee, also served time in a debtors prison.
States following the Revolution began to impose restrictions on imprisonment for debt, as to duration, the amounts owed that would subject a debtor to imprisonment, etc. Eventually New York abolished debtors prisons altogether in 1831, and in 1833 the Federal government abolished imprisonment for debts being ordered by Federal courts. All the other states, following the lead of New York and the Federal government, abolished debtors prisons soon thereafter.