Debtors Prisons In Early American History
Debtor’s Prisons existed in the United States dating from the beginning of Colonization to 1850. Numerous important early political figures were incarcerated throughout the history of debtors prisons, most likely giving the Founders a perspective on the ills of the debtor prison system. William Morris, one of the signors of the Declaration of Independence, was imprisoned from 1798-1801 in a debtors’ prison in Washington, DC.
One of his more regular visitors was George Washington. James Wilson, another signor of the Declaration of Independence was incarcerated in a debtors’ prison, at the same time that he was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
In the 1800s, particularly with the ending of the War of 1812, and the poor economy, debtor prisons began to balloon with prisoners. Popular sentiment swelled against debtor prisons based upon the large numbers of persons incarcerated, and the continuing development of the Bankruptcy Laws. The Federal Government outlawed the imprisonment of debtors in 1833.