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FOR THE THEOPHILANTHROPIST.
“ Imprisonment for debt is a species of civil cruelty which all modern governments have borrowed from the Roman law, which considered a debtor as a criminal, and committed the care of his punishment into the hands of the creditor, lending the public prison as an instrument of private vengeance. It is a disgrace to the wisdom of a nation, and can never be allowed in a well regulated state.”- Barlow's Letter to the National Convention of France. .
There are not, perhaps, any subjects more interesting to society generally or individually than those of imprisonment for debt, and the situation of imprisoned debtors.
The policy and justice of imprisonment for debt has been always doubtful. If the object be a mere gratification of the creditor, it is vicious, if the reimbursing his lost property, then surely the estate of the debtor is the natural resource. The legislatures of all countries have agreed on the propriety of restricting the power of the creditor over the debtor, differing only in the extent to which such power should be limited. To me it is clear that an assignment of the debtor's estate is the only substantial satisfaction which can be obtained by the creditor, that an application of its practice, in an early stage of embarrassment, is the most probable mode to render it efficient, and that imprisonment, having a tendency to decrease the property of the insolvent, to deprive society of his aid, and to corrupt the morals of the prisoner, should never be resorted to, except when accompanied with appearances or proofs of pre-meditated fraud.
Opposition to orthodox principles puts new weapons into the hands of their advocates, and, by furnishing additional grounds for argument, renders the overthrow of error more certain. Our subject has not this advantage. The numerous essays which have appeared in the newspapers and periodical publications, in support of the abolition or lessening this evil, remain, as far as I know, unopposed by a single sceptic, whilst even the creditor, who in the moment of anger gratifies his vindictive passion, by an exercise of his power, shrinks from the discussion of a practice which he cannot, without implicating himself, condemn, and which he knows he cannot justify.
The law of this state makes no adequate provision for an early settlement of embarrassed estates ; it neither encourages nor enforces the making or accepting the property of insolvent debtors for the general benefit of the creditors, except on condition of relinquishing all future demands against the debtor.
Imprisonment of debtors is authorised even after a full assignment of property.
No provision is made for the sustenance of prisoners who are destitute of the means of procuring or earning such.
The law is partial, in as much as it authorises assignments in favour of one, or a few creditors, to the exclusion of the creditors generally. It authorises the arrest of a supposed debtor, without any previous proof of the charge. A combination of creditors may cause a debtor to be imprisoned for life.
I shall give a cursory view of the debtor's prison in this city, not intending thereby to implicate the present keeper in any dereliction of duty on his part, but to show the inconveniencies and hardships which those endure, who have the misfortune to be placed there.
The responsibility of the jailor for the safe keeping of the prisoners renders it difficult to fix bounds to his authority within the prison ; it appears at present nearly unlimited. The jail consists of four parts, separated from each other by strong doors :
1. The cellars or dungeons are used as places of solitary confinement for persons deemed disorderly, and occasionally for
lodging therein the female prisoners. This place is entirely under ground, with small apertures to give air and light; the former is damp and unwholesome, the latter little more than sufficient to make “ darkness visible.” At this time the rooms are uninhabited except by a number of pigeons and other fowl, the property of the jailor.
2. The lower or ground floor, is partly occupied by the families of the jailor and turnkeys. It is not considered sufficiently convenient for keeping the prisoners, or some other reason determines the jailor not to keep them there, some exceptions are occasionally made in favour of particular persons. One of the rooms on this floor is occupied as a bar-room, where several articles are sold for the accommodation of the prisoners, at an advanced price. The profits of this establishment is one of the perquisites of the jailor.
3. The middle floor is occupied by those prisoners, who, able to contribute a small sum towards a stock-purse, for the purpose of whitewashing and lighting the hall, and defraying other charges requisite to their comfort, qualify themselves thereby to become members of the “ Middle Hall Society.”
4. The upper floor is occupied by persons either unable or unwilling to contribute to the expense of living on the middle floor.
A 5th place worthy of note is the garret, which is not accessible to prisoners, except during the day, on account of the possibility of escapes in the night. This respectable place, is during the day occupied by a number of tubs, placed there as substitutes for a necessary, there being no such convenience attached to this prison. Other tubs for a similar purpose, are placed in the dungeon ; the prisoners remain between the dangerous effluvia of both nuisances ; nor is it possible, without coming close and nearly in contact with them, to pass to the top of the house, where alone, any free or uncontaminated air can be expected.
The distinction between confined criminals and debtors is, that the former are fed, and in some instances clothed, whilst
the latter are left to starve without the least provision for their support. As to the upper hall, little could be added to the wretchedness of most of its inhabitants. They seldom can afford to light their hall; rooms with little or no fire, are generally crowded by debtors, most of whom are supported by the charitable donations of the humane society, and many of them nearly naked by day, lie on the floors without beds, during the night ; in one room of the upper hall all the white female prisoners are lodged, in another, (except when too numerous to be contained in one,) all the persons of colour, without distinction of sex,
According to the annual report of the Humane Society of the last year, it will appear, that from December 1808 to December 1809, there were confined in the debtor's prison of this city, 326 persons for debts between 25 and 15 dollars, 235 for debts between 15 and 10 dollars, and 591 for debts under 10 dollars. Total under 25 dollars, 1152.—During the preceding year, the number was upwards of 1300. Nearly the whole of them were supported while there by the Humane Society.
I cannot conclude this hasty sketch of a great and growing evil, without expressing an ardent hope, that the legislature will, during their present session, enact such amendments to the insolvent laws, as will, in rendering them in general more equitable and merciful, at once increase the good and lessen the evil which results to individuals and the community from their present operation.
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YOR THK THEOPHILANTHROPIST.
INTERCOURSE BETWEEN INTELLI
The Editors of the Theophilanthropist, professing the utmost liberality of
thought, and wishing to give fair scope to the human mind, cannot, with propriety, refuse admission to the following logical essay.
The intercourse between intelligent beings depends entirely on their capacity for reciprocating intelligence. This faculty in man is improved by education : it is also improvable, and by the same means, in dogs, horses, and other quadrupeds. The congeniality, in some particular points, of their natures with ours, appears indispensably necessary to this intercourse. With fish and fowl, the ability to correspond is, on both sides, very inadequate : but it is in exact proportion to the disparity of their several natures. Descend still lower on the scale of existence, and man, though surrounded by myriads of sentient beings, finds society totally at an end. 'Tis the same if he attempts to ascend the scale. The reports of the existence of such beings as angels, it is difficult to conceive. We necessarily conclude that as the exercise of power and intelligence universally indicate mind, the infinite power and intelligence manifested in the organization of vegetables, animals, and the world, must have proceeded from an infinitely powerful and wise being; and these conclusions are the only possible intercourse that we are capacitated ever to have with such a being. For if neither our physical, nor our moral powers, qualify us for corresponding with the beings the next below, or the next above us, on the great scale of existence, how is it possible that we should hold communication with beings a great many degrees higher ? And if such intercourse with finite beings is impossible, how