An essay upon projects, by Daniel Defoe

Of Bankrupts.

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:

1. Whether the length of time since that act was made has not given opportunity to debtors,

(1) To evade the force of the act by ways and shifts to avoid the power of it, and secure their estates out of the reach of it.

(2) To turn the point of it against those whom it was made to relieve. Since we see frequently now that bankrupts desire statutes, and procure them to be taken out against themselves.

2. Whether the extremities of this law are not often carried on beyond the true intent and meaning of the act itself by persons who, besides being creditors, are also malicious, and gratify their private revenge by prosecuting the offender, to the ruin of his family.

If these two points are to be proved, then I am sure it will follow that this act is now a public grievance to the nation, and I doubt not but will be one time or other repealed by the same wise authority which made it.

1. Time and experience has furnished the debtors with ways and means to evade the force of this statute, and to secure their estate against the reach of it, which renders it often insignificant, and consequently, the knave against whom the law was particularly bent gets off, while he only who fails of mere necessity, and whose honest principle will not permit him to practise those methods, is exposed to the fury of this act. And as things are now ordered, nothing is more easy than for a man to order his estate so that a statute shall have no power over it, or at least but a little.

If the bankrupt be a merchant, no statute can reach his effects beyond the seas; so that he has nothing to secure but his books, and away he goes into the Friars. If a Shopkeeper, he has more difficulty: but that is made easy, for there are men and carts to be had whose trade it is, and who in one night shall remove the greatest warehouse of goods or cellar of wines in the town and carry them off into those nurseries of rogues, the Mint and Friars; and our constables and watch, who are the allowed magistrates of the night, and who shall stop a poor little lurking thief, that it may be has stole a bundle of old clothes, worth five shilling, shall let them all pass without any disturbance, and hundred honest men robbed of their estates before their faces, to the eternal infamy of the justice of the nation.

And were a man but to hear the discourse among the inhabitants of those dens of thieves, when they first swarm about a new-comer to comfort him, for they are not all hardened to a like degree at once. “Well,” says the first, “come, don’t be concerned, you have got a good parcel of goods away I promise you, you need not value all the world.” “All! would I had done so,” says another, “I’d a laughed at all my creditors.” “Ay,” says the young proficient in the hardened trade, “but my creditors!” “Hang the creditors!” says a third; “why, there’s such a one, and such a one, they have creditors too, and they won’t agree with them, and here they live like gentlemen, and care not a farthing for them. Offer your creditors half a crown in the pound, and pay it them in old debts, and if they won’t take it let them alone; they’ll come after you, never fear it.” “Oh! but a statute,” says he again. “Oh! but the devil,” cries the Minter. “Why, ’tis the statutes we live by,” say they; “why, if it were not for statutes, creditors would comply, and debtors would compound, and we honest fellows here of the Mint would be starved. Prithee, what need you care for a statute? A thousand statutes can’t reach you here.” This is the language of the country, and the new-comer soon learns to speak it; for I think I may say, without wronging any man, I have known many a man go in among them honest, that is, without ill design, but I never knew one come away so again. Then comes a graver sort among this black crew (for here, as in hell, are fiends of degrees and different magnitude), and he falls into discourse with the new-comer, and gives him more solid advice. “Look you, sir, I am concerned to see you melancholy; I am in your circumstance too, and if you’ll accept of it, I’ll give you the best advice I can,” and so begins the grave discourse.

The man is in too much trouble not to want counsel, so he thanks him, and he goes on:— “Send a summons to your creditors, and offer them what you can propose in the pound (always reserving a good stock to begin the world again), which if they will take, you are a free man, and better than you were before; if they won’t take it, you know the worst of it, you are on the better side of the hedge with them: if they will not take it, but will proceed to a statute, you have nothing to do but to oppose force with force; for the laws of nature tell you, you must not starve; and a statute is so barbarous, so unjust, so malicious a way of proceeding against a man, that I do not think any debtor obliged to consider anything but his own preservation, when once they go on with that.” “For why,” says the old studied wretch, “should the creditors spend your estate in the commission, and then demand the debt of you too? Do you owe anything to the commission of the statute?” “No,” says he. “Why, then,” says he, “I warrant their charges will come to 200 pounds out of your estate, and they must have 10s. a day for starving you and your family. I cannot see why any man should think I am bound in conscience to pay the extravagance of other men. If my creditors spend 500 pounds in getting in my estate by a statute, which I offered to surrender without it, I’ll reckon that 500 pounds paid them, let them take it among them, for equity is due to a bankrupt as well as to any man, and if the laws do not give it us, we must take it.”

This is too rational discourse not to please him, and he proceeds by this advice; the creditors cannot agree, but take out a statute; and the man that offered at first it may be 10s. in the pound, is kept in that cursed place till he has spent it all and can offer nothing, and then gets away beyond sea, or after a long consumption gets off by an act of relief to poor debtors, and all the charges of the statute fall among the creditors. Thus I knew a statute taken out against a shopkeeper in the country, and a considerable parcel of goods too seized, and yet the creditors, what with charges and two or three suits at law, lost their whole debts and 8s. per pound contribution money for charges, and the poor debtor, like a man under the surgeon’s hand, died in the operation.

2. Another evil that time and experience has brought to light from this act is, when the debtor himself shall confederate with some particular creditor to take out a statute, and this is a masterpiece of plot and intrigue. For perhaps some creditor honestly received in the way of trade a large sum of money of the debtor for goods sold him when he was sui juris, and he by consent shall own himself a bankrupt before that time, and the statute shall reach back to bring in an honest man’s estate, to help pay a rogue’s debt. Or a man shall go and borrow a sum of money upon a parcel of goods, and lay them to pledge; he keeps the money, and the statute shall fetch away the goods to help forward the composition. These are tricks I can give too good an account of, having more than once suffered by the experiment. I could give a scheme, of more ways, but I think it is needless to prove the necessity of laying aside that law, which is pernicious to both debtor and creditor, and chiefly hurtful to the honest man whom it was made to preserve.

The next inquiry is, whether the extremities of this law are not often carried on beyond the true intent and meaning of the act itself, for malicious and private ends to gratify passion and revenge?

I remember the answer a person gave me, who had taken out statutes against several persons, and some his near relations, who had failed in his debt; and when I was one time dissuading him from prosecuting a man who owed me money as well as him, I used this argument with him:— “You know the man has nothing left to pay.” “That’s true,” says he; “I know that well enough.” “To what purpose, then,” said I, “will you prosecute him?” “Why, revenge is sweet,” said he. Now a man that will prosecute a debtor, not as a debtor, but by way of revenge, such a man is, I think, not intentionally within the benefit of our law.

In order to state the case right, there are four sorts of people to be considered in this discourse; and the true case is how to distinguish them,

1. There is the honest debtor, who fails by visible necessity, losses, sickness, decay of trade, or the like.

2. The knavish, designing, or idle, extravagant debtor, who fails because either he has run out his estate in excesses, or on purpose to cheat and abuse his creditors.

3. There is the moderate creditor, who seeks but his own, but will omit no lawful means to gain it, and yet will hear reasonable and just arguments and proposals.

4. There is the rigorous severe creditor, that values not whether the debtor be honest man or knave, able or unable, but will have his debt, whether it be to be had or no, without mercy, without compassion, full of ill language, passion, and revenge.

How to make a law to suit to all these is the case. That a necessary favour might be shown to the first, in pity and compassion to the unfortunate, in commiseration of casualty and poverty, which no man is exempt from the danger of. That a due rigour and restraint be laid upon the second, that villainy and knavery might not be encouraged by a law. That a due care be taken of the third, that men’s estates may as far as can be secured to them. And due limits set to the last, that no man may have an unlimited power over his fellow-subjects, to the ruin of both life and estate.

All which I humbly conceive might be brought to pass by the following method, to which I give the title of

A Court of Inquiries.

This court should consist of a select number of persons, to be chosen yearly out of the several wards of the City by the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen, and out of the several Inns of Court by the Lord Chancellor, or Lord Keeper, for the time being, and to consist of,

    A President,   } To be chosen by the rest, and
    A Secretary,   } named every year also.
    A Treasurer,   }
    A judge of causes for the proof of debts.
    Fifty-two citizens, out of every ward two;
           of which number to be twelve merchants.
    Two lawyers (barristers at least) out of each
           of the Inns of Court.

That a Commission of Inquiry into bankrupts’ estates be given to these, confirmed and settled by Act of Parliament, with power to hear, try, and determine causes as to proof of debts, and disputes in accounts between debtor and creditor, without appeal.

The office for this court to be at Guildhall, where clerks should be always attending, and a quorum of the commissioners to sit de die in diem, from three to six o’clock in the afternoon.

To this court every man who finds himself pressed by his affairs, so that he cannot carry on his business, shall apply himself as follows:—

He shall go to the secretary’s office, and give in his name, with this short petition:—

To the Honourable the President and Commissioners of His Majesty’s Court of Inquiries. The humble petition of A. B., of the Parish of —— in the Haberdasher.


That your petitioner being unable to carry on his business, by reason of great losses and decay of trade, and being ready and willing to make a full and entire discovery of his whole estate, and to deliver up the same to your honours upon oath, as the law directs for the satisfaction of his creditors, and having to that purpose entered his name into the books of your office on the —— of this instant.

Your petitioner humbly prays the protection of this Honourable Court.

And shall ever pray, &c.

The secretary is to lay this petition before the commissioners, who shall sign it of course; and the petitioner shall have an officer sent home with him immediately, who shall take possession of his house and goods, and an exact inventory of everything therein shall be taken at his entrance by other officers also, appointed by the court; according to which inventory the first officer and the bankrupt also shall be accountable.

This officer shall supersede even the Sheriff in possession, excepting by an extent for the king; only with this provision:—

That if the Sheriff be in possession by warrant on judgment obtained by due course of law, and without fraud or deceit, and, bona fide, in possession before the debtor entered his name in the office, in such case the plaintiff to have a double dividend allotted to his debt; for it was the fault of the debtor to let execution come upon his goods before he sought for protection; but this not to be allowed upon judgment confessed.

If the Sheriff be in possession by fieri facias for debt immediately due to the king, the officer, however, shall quit his possession to the commissioners, and they shall see the king’s debt fully satisfied before any division be made to the creditors.

The officers in this case to take no fee from the bankrupt, nor to use any indecent or uncivil behaviour to the family (which is a most notorious abuse now permitted to the sheriff’s officers), whose fees I have known, on small executions, on pretence of civility, amount to as much as the debt, and yet behave themselves with unsufferable insolence all the while.

This officer being in possession, the goods may be removed, or not removed; the shop shut up or not shut up; as the bankrupt upon his reasons given to the commissioners may desire.

The inventory being taken, the bankrupt shall have fourteen days’ time, and more if desired, upon showing good reasons to the commissioners, to settle his books and draw up his accounts; and then shall deliver up all his books, together with a full and true account of his whole estate, real and personal, to which account he shall make oath, and afterwards to any particular of it, if the commissioners require.

After this account given in, the commissioners shall have power to examine upon oath all his servants, or any other person; and if it appears that he has concealed anything, in breach of his oath, to punish him, as is hereafter specified.

Upon a fair and just surrender of all his estate and effects, bona fide, according to the true intent and meaning of the act, the commissioners shall return to him in money, or such of his goods as he shall choose, at a value by a just appraisement, 5 pounds per cent. of all the estate he surrendered, together with a full and free discharge from all his creditors.

The remainder of the estate of the debtor to be fairly and equally divided among the creditors, who are to apply themselves to the commissioners. The commissioners to make a necessary inquiry into the nature and circumstances of the debts demanded, that no pretended debt be claimed for the private account of the debtor; in order to which inquiry they shall administer the following oath to the creditor, for the proof of the debt.

I, A. B., do solemnly swear and attest that the account hereto annexed is true and right, and every article therein rightly and truly stated and charged in the names of the persons to whom they belong; and that there is no person or name named, concealed, or altered in the said account by me, or by my knowledge, order, or consent. And that the said does really and bona fide owe and stand indebted to me for my own proper account the full sum of mentioned in the said account, and that for a fair and just value made good to him, as by the said account expressed; and also that I have not made or known of any private contract, promise, or agreement between him the said (or any body for him) and me, or any person whatsoever.

So help me God.

Upon this oath, and no circumstances to render the person suspected, the creditor shall have an unquestioned right to his dividend, which shall be made without the delays and charges that attend the commissions of bankrupts. For,

1. The goods of the debtor shall upon the first meeting of the creditors be either sold in parcels, as they shall agree, or divided among them in due proportion to their debts.

2. What debts are standing out, the debtors shall receive summonses from the commissioners, to pay by a certain time limited; and in the meantime the secretary is to transmit accounts to the persons owing it, appointing them a reasonable time to consent or disprove the account.

And every six months a just dividend shall be made among the creditors of the money received; and so, if the effects lie abroad, authentic procurations shall be signed by the bankrupt to the commissioners, who thereupon correspond with the persons abroad, in whose hands such effects are, who are to remit the same as the commissioners order; the dividend to be made, as before, every six months, or oftener, if the court see cause.

If any man thinks the bankrupt has so much favour by these articles, that those who can dispense with an oath have an opportunity to cheat their creditors, and that hereby too much encouragement is given to men to turn bankrupt; let them consider the easiness of the discovery, the difficulty of a concealment, and the penalty on the offender.

1. I would have a reward of 30 per cent. be provided to be paid to any person who should make discovery of any part of the bankrupt’s estate concealed by him, which would make discoveries easy and frequent.

2. Any person who should claim any debt among the creditors, for the account of the bankrupt, or his wife or children, or with design to relieve them out of it, other or more than is, bona fide, due to him for value received, and to be made out; or any person who shall receive in trust, or by deed of gift, any part of the goods or other estate of the bankrupt, with design to preserve them for the use of the said bankrupt, or his wife or children, or with design to conceal them from the creditors, shall forfeit for every such act 500 pounds, and have his name published as a cheat, and a person not fit to be credited by any man. This would make it very difficult for the bankrupt to conceal anything.

3. The bankrupt having given his name, and put the officer into possession, shall not remove out of the house any of his books; but during the fourteen days’ time which he shall have to settle the accounts shall every night deliver the books into the hands of the officer; and the commissioners shall have liberty, if they please, to take the books the first day, and cause duplicates to be made, and then to give them back to the bankrupt to settle the accounts.

4. If it shall appear that the bankrupt has given in a false account, has concealed any part of his goods or debts, in breach of his oath, he shall be set in the pillory at his own door, and be imprisoned during life without bail.

5. To prevent the bankrupt concealing any debts abroad, it should be enacted that the name of the bankrupt being entered at the office, where every man might search gratis, should be publication enough; and that after such entry, no discharge from the bankrupt should be allowed in account to any man, but whoever would adventure to pay any money to the said bankrupt or his order should be still debtor to the estate, and pay it again to the commissioners.

And whereas wiser heads than mine must be employed to compose this law, if ever it be made, they will have time to consider of more ways to secure the estate for the creditors, and, if possible, to tie the hands of the bankrupt yet faster.

This law, if ever such a happiness should arise to this kingdom, would be a present remedy for a multitude of evils which now we feel, and which are a sensible detriment to the trade of this nation.

1. With submission, I question not but it would prevent a great number of bankrupts, which now fall by divers causes. For,

(1.) It would effectually remove all crafty designed breakings, by which many honest men are ruined. And

(2.) Of course ’twould prevent the fall of those tradesmen who are forced to break by the knavery of such.

2. It would effectually suppress all those sanctuaries and refuges of thieves, the Mint, Friars, Savoy, Rules, and the like; and that these two ways:—

(1.) Honest men would have no need of it, here being a more safe, easy, and more honourable way to get out of trouble.

(2.) Knaves should have no protection from those places, and the Act be fortified against those places by the following clauses, which I have on purpose reserved to this head.

Since the provision this court of inquiries makes for the ease and deliverance of every debtor who is honest is so considerable, ’tis most certain that no man but he who has a design to cheat his creditors will refuse to accept of the favour; and therefore it should be enacted,

That if any man who is a tradesman or merchant shall break or fail, or shut up shop, or leave off trade, and shall not either pay or secure to his creditors their full and whole debts, twenty shillings in the pound, without abatement or deduction; or shall convey away their books or goods, in order to bring their creditors to any composition; or shall not apply to this office as aforesaid, shall be guilty of felony, and upon conviction of the same shall suffer as a felon, without benefit of clergy.

And if any such person shall take sanctuary either in the Mint, Friars, or other pretended privilege place, or shall convey thither any of their goods as aforesaid, to secure them from their creditors, upon complaint thereof made to any of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace, they shall immediately grant warrants to the constable, &c., to search for the said persons and goods, who shall be aided and assisted by the trained bands, if need be, without any charge to the creditors, to search for, and discover the said persons and goods; and whoever were aiding in the carrying in the said goods, or whoever knowingly received either the goods or the person, should be also guilty of felony.

For as the indigent debtor is a branch of the commonwealth which deserves its care, so the wilful bankrupt is one of the worst sort of thieves. And it seems a little unequal that a poor fellow who for mere want steals from his neighbour some trifle shall be sent out of the kingdom, and sometimes out of the world, while a sort of people who defy justice, and violently resist the law, shall be suffered to carry men’s estates away before their faces, and no officers to be found who dare execute the law upon them.

Any man would be concerned to hear with what scandal and reproach foreigners do speak of the impotence of our constitution in this point; that in a civilised Government, as ours is, the strangest contempt of authority is shown that can be instanced in the world.

I may be a little the warmer on this head, on account that I have been a larger sufferer by such means than ordinary. But I appeal to all the world as to the equity of the case. What the difference is between having my house broken up in the night to be robbed, and a man coming in good credit, and with a proffer of ready money in the middle of the day, and buying 500 pounds of goods, and carrying them directly from my warehouse into the Mint, and the next day laugh at me, and bid me defiance; yet this I have seen done. I think ’tis the justest thing in the world that the last should be esteemed the greater thief, and deserves most to be hanged.

I have seen a creditor come with his wife and children, and beg of the debtor only to let him have part of his own goods again, which he had bought, knowing and designing to break. I have seen him with tears and entreaties petition for his own, or but some of it, and be taunted and sworn at, and denied by a saucy insolent bankrupt. That the poor man has been wholly ruined by the cheat. It is by the villainy of such many an honest man is undone, families starved and sent a begging, and yet no punishment prescribed by our laws for it.

By the aforesaid commission of inquiry all this might be most effectually prevented, an honest, indigent tradesman preserved, knavery detected and punished; Mints, Friars, and privilege-places suppressed, and without doubt a great number of insolencies avoided and prevented; of which many more particulars might be insisted upon, but I think these may be sufficient to lead anybody into the thought; and for the method, I leave it to the wise heads of the nation, who know better than I how to state the law to the circumstances of the crime.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37