The wisdom of Providence has not left us without examples of some of the most stupid natural idiots in the world who have been restored to their reason, or, as one would think, had reason infused after a long life of idiotism; perhaps, among other wise ends, to confute that sordid supposition that idiots have no souls.
This chapter has some right to stand next to that of fools, for besides the common acceptation of late, which makes every unfortunate man a fool, I think no man so much made a fool of as a bankrupt.
If I may be allowed so much liberty with our laws, which are generally good, and above all things are tempered with mercy, lenity, and freedom, this has something in it of barbarity; it gives a loose to the malice and revenge of the creditor, as well as a power to right himself, while it leaves the debtor no way to show himself honest. It contrives all the ways possible to drive the debtor to despair, and encourages no new industry, for it makes him perfectly incapable of anything but starving.
This law, especially as it is now frequently executed, tends wholly to the destruction of the debtor, and yet very little to the advantage of the creditor.
1. The severities to the debtor are unreasonable, and, if I may so say, a little inhuman, for it not only strips him of all in a moment, but renders him for ever incapable of helping himself, or relieving his family by future industry. If he escapes from prison, which is hardly done too, if he has nothing left, he must starve or live on charity; if he goes to work no man dare pay him his wages, but he shall pay it again to the creditors; if he has any private stock left for a subsistence he can put it nowhere; every man is bound to be a thief and take it from him; if he trusts it in the hands of a friend he must receive it again as a great courtesy, for that friend is liable to account for it. I have known a poor man prosecuted by a statute to that degree that all he had left was a little money which he knew not where to hide; at last, that he might not starve, he gives it to his brother who had entertained him; the brother, after he had his money quarrels with him to get him out of his house, and when he desires him to let him have the money lent him, gives him this for answer, I cannot pay you safely, for there is a statute against you; which run the poor man to such extremities that he destroyed himself. Nothing is more frequent than for men who are reduced by miscarriage in trade to compound and set up again and get good estates; but a statute, as we call it, for ever shuts up all doors to the debtor's recovery, as if breaking were a crime so capital that he ought to be cast out of human society and exposed to extremities worse than death. And, which will further expose the fruitless severity of this law, it is easy to make it appear that all this cruelty to the debtor is so far, generally speaking, from advantaging the creditors, that it destroys the estate, consumes it in extravagant charges, and unless the debtor be consenting, seldom makes any considerable dividends. And I am bold to say there is no advantage made by the prosecuting of a statute with severity, but what might be doubly made by methods more merciful. And though I am not to prescribe to the legislators of the nation, yet by way of essay I take leave to give my opinion and my experience in the methods, consequences, and remedies of this law.
All people know, who remember anything of the times when that law was made, that the evil it was pointed at was grown very rank, and breaking to defraud creditors so much a trade, that the parliament had good reason to set up a fury to deal with it; and I am far from reflecting on the makers of that law, who, no question, saw it was necessary at that time. But as laws, though in themselves good, are more or less so, as they are more or less seasonable, squared, and adapted to the circumstances and time of the evil they are made against; so it were worth while (with submission) for the same authority to examine: