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Idler 022 [No. 22: Imprisonment of debtors]
by [?]

Many of the inhabitants of prisons may justly complain of harder treatment. He that once owes more than he can pay, is often obliged to bribe his creditor to patience, by increasing his debt. Worse and worse commodities, at a higher and higher price, are forced upon him; he is impoverished by compulsive traffick, and at last overwhelmed, in the common receptacles of misery, by debts, which, without his own consent, were accumulated on his head. To the relief of this distress, no other objection can be made, but that by an easy dissolution of debts fraud will be left without punishment, and imprudence without awe; and that when insolvency should be no longer punishable, credit will cease.

The motive to credit is the hope of advantage. Commerce can never be at a stop, while one man wants what another can supply; and credit will never be denied, while it is likely to be repaid with profit. He that trusts one whom he designs to sue, is criminal by the act of trust: the cessation of such insidious traffick is to be desired, and no reason can be given why a change of the law should impair any other.

We see nation trade with nation, where no payment can be compelled. Mutual convenience produces mutual confidence; and the merchants continue to satisfy the demands of each other, though they have nothing to dread but the loss of trade.

It is vain to continue an institution, which experience shows to be ineffectual. We have now imprisoned one generation of debtors after another, but we do not find that their numbers lessen. We have now learned that rashness and imprudence will not be deterred from taking credit; let us try whether fraud and avarice may be more easily restrained from giving it[1].

I am, Sir, etc.

This number was substituted, for some reason not ascertained, for the keenly satirical original, which is reprinted at the end of this volume.

The observations of the present paper are such as would naturally suggest themselves to an honest and benevolent mind like Johnson’s; but their political correctness may reasonably be questioned. An attempt has been made, since his day, to provide a humane protection for the unfortunate debtor. But has it not, at the same time, exposed the confiding tradesman to deception and to consequent ruin, by destroying all adequate punishment, and therefore removing every check upon vice and prodigality? In a Dictionnaire des Gens du Monde, insolvency has been, not unaptly, defined, a mode of getting rich by infallible rules! See Idler 38, and Note.