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The Politics of Debt in America

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Posted on Jan 30, 2013
Gruenemann (CC BY 2.0)

By Steve Fraser, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

A mob chased Duer through the streets of New York and might have hanged or disemboweled him had he not been rescued by the city sheriff, who sent him to the safety of debtor’s prison.  John Pintard, part of the same scheme, fled to Newark, New Jersey, before being caught and jailed as well.

Sending the Duers and Pintards of the new republic off to debtors’ prison was not, however, quite what Hamilton had in mind.  And leaving them rotting there was hardly going to foster the “enterprising spirit” that would, in the treasury secretary’s estimation, turn the country into the Great Britain of the next century.  Bankruptcy, on the other hand, ensured that the overextended could start again and keep the machinery of commercial transactions lubricated.  Hence, the Bankruptcy Act of 1800.

If, however, you were not a major player, debt functioned differently. Shouldered by the hoi polloi, it functioned as a mechanism for funneling wealth into the mercantile-financial hothouses where American capitalism was being incubated.

No wonder debt excited such violent political emotions.  Even before the Constitution was adopted, farmers in western Massachusetts, indebted to Boston bankers and merchants and in danger of losing their ancestral homes in the economic hard times of the 1780s, rose in armed rebellion.  In those years, the number of lawsuits for unpaid debt doubled and tripled, farms were seized, and their owners sent off to jail.  Incensed, farmers led by a former revolutionary soldier, Daniel Shays, closed local courts by force and liberated debtors from prisons.  Similar but smaller uprisings erupted in Maine, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, while in New Hampshire and Vermont irate farmers surrounded government offices. 

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Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 alarmed the country’s elites.  They depicted the unruly yeomen as “brutes” and their houses as “sties.”  They were frightened as well by state governments like Rhode Island’s that were more open to popular influence, declared debt moratoria, and issued paper currencies to help farmers and others pay off their debts.  These developments signaled the need for a stronger central government fully capable of suppressing future debtor insurgencies.

Federal authority established at the Constitutional Convention allowed for that, but the unrest continued.  Shays’ Rebellion was but part one of a trilogy of uprisings that continued into the 1790s.  The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was the most serious.  An excise tax (“whiskey tax”) meant to generate revenue to back up the national debt threatened the livelihoods of farmers in western Pennsylvania who used whiskey as a “currency” in a barter economy.  President Washington sent in troops, many of them Revolutionary War veterans, with Hamilton at their head to put down the rebels. 

Debt Servitude and Primitive Accumulation

Debt would continue to play a vital role in national and local political affairs throughout the nineteenth century, functioning as a form of capital accumulation in the financial sector, and often sinking pre-capitalist forms of life in the process. 

Before and during the time that capitalists were fully assuming the prerogatives of running the production process in field and factory, finance was building up its own resources from the outside.  Meanwhile, the mechanisms of public and private debt made the lives of farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and others increasingly insupportable.

This parasitic economic metabolism helped account for the riotous nature of Gilded Age politics. Much of the high drama of late nineteenth-century political life circled around “greenbacks,” “free silver,” and “the gold standard.”  These issues may strike us as arcane today, but they were incendiary then, threatening what some called a “second Civil War.”  In one way or another, they were centrally about debt, especially a system of indebtedness that was driving the independent farmer to extinction.

All the highways of global capitalism found their way into the trackless vastness of rural America.  Farmers there were not in dire straits because of their backwoods isolation.  On the contrary, it was because they turned out to be living at Ground Zero, where the explosive energies of financial and commercial modernity detonated.  A toxic combination of railroads, grain-elevator operators, farm-machinery manufacturers, commodity-exchange speculators, local merchants, and above all the banking establishment had the farmer at their mercy.  His helplessness was only aggravated when the nineteenth-century version of globalization left his crops in desperate competition with those from the steppes of Canada and Russia, as well as the outbacks of Australia and South America.

To survive this mercantile onslaught, farmers hooked themselves up to long lines of credit that stretched back to the financial centers of the East.  These lifelines allowed them to buy the seed, fertilizer, and machines needed to farm, pay the storage and freight charges that went with selling their crops, and keep house and home together while the plants ripened and the hogs fattened.  When market day finally arrived, the farmer found out just what all his backbreaking work was really worth.  If the news was bad, then those credit lines were shut off and he found himself dispossessed.

The family farm and the network of small town life that went with it were being washed into the rivers of capital heading for metropolitan America.  On the “sod house” frontier, poverty was a “badge of honor which decorated all.”  In his Devil’s Dictionary, the acid-tongued humorist Ambrose Bierce defined the dilemma this way: “Debt. n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.”

Across the Great Plains and the cotton South, discontented farmers spread the blame for their predicament far and wide.  Anger, however, tended to pool around the strangulating system of currency and credit run out of the banking centers of the northeast. Beginning in the 1870s with the emergence of the Greenback Party and Greenback-Labor Party and culminating in the 1890s with the People’s or Populist Party, independent farmers, tenant farmers, sharecroppers, small businessmen, and skilled workers directed ever more intense hostility at “the money power.”

That “power” might appear locally in the homeliest of disguises.  At coal mines and other industrial sites, among “coolies” working to build the railroads or imported immigrant gang laborers and convicts leased to private concerns, workers were typically compelled to buy what they needed in company scrip at company stores at prices that left them perpetually in debt.  Proletarians were so precariously positioned that going into debt—whether to pawnshops or employers, landlords or loan sharks—was unavoidable.  Often they were paid in kind: wood chips, thread, hemp, scraps of canvas, cordage: nothing, that is, that was of any use in paying off accumulated debts.  In effect, they were, as they called themselves, “debt slaves.” 


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