Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Imprisoned for Failure to Repay Debt in 1813 Maryland - John Ball of Prince George's County Petitions for Release from Prison

Maryland — Prince Georges [sic] county, to wit[1]
Application being made to me the subscriber, in the recess of Prince Georges county court, as an associate judge of the first judicial district of Maryland, by petition in writing of John Ball of Prince Georges county, praying for the benefit of the "Act for the relief of sundry insolvent debtors" and the supplements thereto, on the terms mentioned in the said acts, a schedule of his property and a list of his creditors on oath, as far as he can ascertain them being and next to his petition, and the said John Ball having satisfied me by competent testimony that he has resided in the state of Maryland two years immediately preceding the time of his application; having also satisfied me that he is now in confinement for debts, and praying to be discharged therefrom. I do therefore order and adjudge that the said John Ball be discharged from his imprisonment, and that by causing disorder to be inserted in the National Intelligencer, weekly for three months successfully before the first Monday in April next, give notice to his creditors to appear before Prince Georges county court on the first Monday in April next, to shew cause, if any they have, why the said John Ball should not have the benefit of the several acts as prayed. Given under my hand this sixth day of October 1812.
                                                            DANIEL CLARKE.
            January 1 ..w3m [2]

[1] Debt, failure to repay a loan, was a serious matter in Maryland during the colonial, revolutionary, and Antibeluum periods in Maryland. Failure to repay could and did result in imprisonment.  Any attempt to explain Maryland's confusing, complicated, complex, contradictory and inconsistent insolvency and bankruptcy laws is beyond the scope of a mere footnote. In a very real sense much of Maryland's political history is the tale of relations and resulting tensions between creditors and debtors. Those who lent and those who borrowed were at odds as to personal, social, ethical and moral responsibilities. When criminal fraud was layered upn economic inability to repay a loan, penalties and punishment quickly became entangled.

In the decades immediately following the founding of the English colony of Maryland by the Calvert family, the role of creditors was firmly established. Legislation was introduced as early as 1637 to address default on loans. A debtor could find his future labor indentured to his creditor or creditors. In other words he would become bound contractually to work off the debt. Almost at once, debtors asked for relief. For example if a debt was called in during the growing season and the debtor physically held so that he could not plant, cultivate and harvest his crop of tobacco, it then stood to reason he could in no way pay off his financial obligation to the creditor that had brought legal claim against him.

Conditions of imprisonment for debt could be extreme in Prince George's County as well as the rest of the State of Maryland. In 1731, the General Assembly order an investigation of debtor's prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners by the county sheriff, Richard Lee.  . On Friday July 23, 1731,
"Mr Ralph Crabb in Obedience to an Order made at last Sessions of Assembly Ordering him and Mr Edward Sprigg to repair to the Gaol of the Sherriff of Prince Georges County and to Examine the Prisoners Concerning their being beat & abused by the said Sherriff Return to the House the Depositions of Several prisoners by them taken with a Recognizance taken of the said Sherriff for to keep the peace & be of Good Behaviour.(Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, May, 1730-August, 1732. Volume 37, Page 237).
see also:  Volume 37, Page 118 "Whereas this House is Informed that Mr Richard Lee Sherrif of Prince Georges County hath during the Sitting of this Assembly beat and Abused Some Languishing Prisoners in his Custody and threatned others with Cruel and Severe Usage for Petitioning the Assembly for their Liberty and this House having taken the said Information into Consideration and being of Opinion that if the Same be true such Treatment is inhuman Cruel and a Violation of the Libertys of the Brittish Subject as also an Insult on and a Violent breach of the Priviledges of this House. It is Ordered and Resolved by this House that Mr Ralph Crabb and Mr Edward Sprigg Justices of the Peace of Prince Georges County and Members of this House Repair in some Convenient time to the Gaol of the said Sherrif And in his the said Sherrifs presence Examine' the prisoners and such other Persons as Can Inform them of the Truth of the Complaint made against the said Sherrif and return the Examinations to be by them taken to this House the next Session of Assembly in Order to be Considered, and if they find the facts Charged Against the said Sherrif to be true that they Cause him to Enter into Recognizance with Sufficient Suritys to be of good behaviour and to keep the peace in the Interim with all the good people of this Province Especially to the said prisoners."  

By the end of the Proprietary government and the establishment of the State of Maryland the contours of credit versus debt; Senate versus House of Delegates; specie (coins and precious metals) versus paper money;  Federalists versus Democratic-Republicans (Anti-Federalists or Jeffersonian Democrats); restrictive property requirements for voter qualifications versus universal enfranchisement for western European males; the Potomac Valley, Georgetown, and Bladensburg versus the Patuxent River planters, Baltimore merchants, and the Chesapeake watermen; - were shaping the political discourse and the history of Maryland.


[2]  Daily National Intelligencer; Date: 02-12-1813; Volume: I; Issue: 37; Page: [4]; Location: Washington (DC), District of Columbia.

Transcribed by John Peter Thompson, February 12th, 2014

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