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Summary Article: Debtors’ Prisons
from Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic, 1783-1812, The: A Political, Social, and Military History

Detention centers for those who could not (or would not) repay their monetary debts. Originally employed on a wide scale during the Middle Ages in Europe, debtors’ prisons grew in popularity and use through the early 19th century in both Europe and the Americas. During the Middle Ages, debtors (both male and female) were typically imprisoned together in large cells in or near the towns or cities in which they resided. A large number of unfortunate prisoners died during the course of their incarceration. Conditions inside debtors’ prisons varied from region to region; however, typically they were overcrowded, disease ridden, and poorly funded. Many debtors’ prisons were intentionally left in deplorable conditions to persuade debtors to pay their debts in a timely fashion.

In order for the debtor to gain freedom, relatives or friends of a prisoner either paid the outstanding debt or made arrangements to ensure that the prisoner would pay his or her debt once released. The system of incarceration for defaulting on debt was seen by most creditors as an efficient way to enforce debtor obligations. It remained little changed until the first half of the 18th century.

During the colonial and early national period in the United States, the system of incarceration for debt closely resembled that of England. Debtors’ prisons in each colony were privately run enterprises that operated for two primary purposes: to force debtors to pay creditors and to make a profit for those operating the prison. Thus, conditions in debtors’ prisons (especially in the more heavily urbanized Northeast) were nothing less than deplorable and inhumane. During the colonial period, individuals could be imprisoned for the remainder of their lives for a debt as little as 50 pence. The appalling conditions in most prisons, the seemingly arbitrary nature of imprisonment, and the need for able-bodied men during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), however, prompted reforms in the debtors’ prison system.

After the American Revolutionary War, most states passed laws that attempted to regulate the system of debtors’ prisons. Reformers and creditors began to understand that incarcerating an individual for debt did not guarantee or even improve the likelihood that a borrower would repay a loan. In fact, imprisonment often ensured that the debts were never repaid because imprisoned persons are unable to work or earn income. In addition, state governments as well as the federal government now fully understood the toll that the prisons placed on society and the economy. These realizations coupled with new debtor relief laws enacted in every state (except Georgia) marked the virtual end of the debtors’ prison system in the United States. Shays’ Rebellion, which occurred in western Massachusetts in 1786, offered a vivid example of what can occur when many people at once find themselves in debt and unable to meet their financial obligations. Virtual anarchy ensued, and the insurrection was not quashed until February 1787. Nevertheless, creditors continued to file suit against debtors and have them imprisoned. Perhaps the most notable figure of the early republic to be jailed for financial insolvency was Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee of Virginia, a Revolutionary War hero whose financial ineptitude resulted in his confinement for debt in Virginia in 1809.

A debtors’ prison in rural Virginia, constructed in 1785 as the residence for a jailer. Iron bars and heavy locks were added in 1824 when it was converted into a prison for debtors, which function it served until 1849. (Library of Congress)

In 1833 the U.S. Congress formerly abolished imprisonment for individuals indebted to the federal government. Most states quickly followed the federal action, and debtors’ prisons were completely phased out by the 1840s.

See also

Shays’ Rebellion

Further Reading
  • Coleman, Peter J. Debtors and Creditors in America: Insolvency, Imprisonment for Debt, and Bankruptcy, 1607-1900. State Historical Society of Wisconsin Madison, 1974.
  • Ford, Richard. “Imprisonment for Debt.” Michigan Law Review 25 (November 1926): 24-49.
  • Timothy Best
    Copyright 2014 by Spencer C. Tucker

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