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.” (more…)