9/4/13 - robinson crusoe, daniel defoe, and debtor's prison

In today's selection - from Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility by Robert Kuttner. Art is often born of adversity, and so it was when Daniel Defoe's stint in debtor's prison helped inform his most famous character, Robinson Crusoe, who faced financial ruin from pursuing "projects and undertakings beyond my reach":

"On October 29, 1692, Daniel Defoe, merchant, pamphleteer, and future best-selling author of Robinson Crusoe, was committed to King's Bench Prison in London because he owed more than 17,000 pounds and could not pay his debts. Before Defoe was declared bankrupt, he had undertaken such far-flung ventures as underwriting marine insurance, importing wine from Portugal, buying a diving bell used to search for buried treasure, and investing in some seventy civet cats, whose musk secretions were prized for the manufacture of perfume.

"In that era, there was no Chapter 11, no system for settling debts and getting a fresh start. Bankruptcy, formally defined in an English statute of 1542, was nothing more than legally recognized insolvency, with harsh consequences. For hundreds of years, bankrupts like Defoe ended up in debtors' prison, a medieval institution that would persist well into the nineteenth century. Often the entire family joined a destitute breadwinner in jail, where the warden attempted to collect fees for food and lodging. Inmates with means could obtain better quarters. Children and wives were sent out to work or to beg. At London's notorious Marshalsea Prison, on the south bank of the Thames, a parliamentary committee reported in 1729 that some three hundred inmates had died in a three-month period, mainly of starvation.

"Typically, creditors obtained a writ of seizure of the debtor's assets. (Historians record that Defoe's civet cats were rounded up by the sheriff's men.) If the assets were insufficient to settle the debt, another writ would send the bankrupt to prison, from which he could win release only by coming to terms with his creditors. Defoe had no fewer than 140 creditors, but he managed to negotiate his freedom in February 1693, though he would continue to evade debt collectors for the next fifteen years. His misadventures later informed Robinson Crusoe (1719), whose fictional protagonist faces financial ruin and expresses remorse at pursuing 'projects and undertakings beyond my reach' and ending up 'the willful agent of all my own miseries.' ...

Robinson Crusoe illustration by N.C. Wyeth

"Reflecting on his own bitter experience, Defoe became England's leading crusader for bankruptcy reform. In 1697, he published the book-length Essay upon Projects, in which he proposed a novel solution. Rather than throwing the debtor to the mercy of his creditors, a 'Court of Inquiries' could make an assessment of the bankrupt's assets, allocate them to creditors at so many pence in the pound, and leave the debtor with enough money to carry on his business. This legal action, undertaken with the cooperation of the debtor, would result in the full 'discharge' of any remaining obligation to creditors. Defoe's proposal cut to the essence of the problem: 'After a debtor was confined in prison both he and the creditor lost through his prolonged distress.'

"Fortuitously, London in the 1690s was dealing with the aftermath of both bubonic plague and commercial losses due to the recent wars with France. Debtors' prisons were overflowing not only with sundry speculators and deadbeats but with solid businessmen whose enterprises had been ruined by the era's economic dislocations. A terrible storm in November 1703 that devastated merchant shipping added to the economic misery. In 1705, with the support of Queen Anne's ministers, Parliament took up a bankruptcy reform act, introducing for the first time the concept of discharge.

"Defoe's thrice-weekly newspaper, A Review of the State of the English Nation, reported on the progress of the bill and served as its most authoritative advocate. The government, looking to drum up support, purchased and distributed copies, increasing its paid circulation to fifteen hundred. The act was understood as an emergency measure to restore commerce; it was to remain in force for just three years."


Robert Kuttner


Debtor's Prison


Alfred A Knopf


Copyright 2013 by Robert Kuttner


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