Posts Tagged ‘The National Bankrupt Association’

From the Editor’s Perch…

November 15, 2013

Editor’s Note:  Another installment about Failure:

How Much Should a Citizen Be Paid for His/Her Work?

How Much Should a Citizen Be Paid for His/Her Work?

Failure, Slavery and the Minimum Wage

 

            According to Scott Sandage’s book, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, the great boom and bust cycles of America during the nineteenth century spawned the need for debt relief legislation.  For every business success to be had, many more failures were spawned.  If “the business of America is business,” as Calvin Coolidge would later say, then the debt-ridden failure was sidelined.  He had no future. 

            Various bankruptcy legislations were tried, and then discarded throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.  The widely held American ideal of a man being the maker of his destiny, reinforced the belief that the ‘truth lies in the man’, and that the roots of failure could be ascertained by a careful examination of the character of the man in question.  Debt relief flew directly in the face of this.  Debt relief would, it was felt by many, just nurture weakness and poor character in the American citizen.  On the other hand, a vast number of the bankrupts – though noting in retrospect many ways in which they might have acted more wisely – complained that the main reason they went bust was because they could not collect from others that which they were owed.  This all came to a head with the advent of the Civil War, when southerners stopped payments on obligations to northern businesses forcing a great number of northern businessmen into bankruptcy. 

            Along with the push for the abolition of slavery, came a parallel cry for bankruptcy legislation.  Their special interest group, The National Bankrupt Association, pushed for this legislation through their leading advocate in Congress, Thomas Jenckes.  Bankrupts complained that their “unpaid debts made them idle”, and “like true abolitionists , members of the association held that freedom was inalienable”.  The movement “seemed to understand that inalienable rights made sense only as a universal standard, not as a privilege of race”.  “To get back on one’s feet was to be emancipated.”  They argued that “When the Thirteenth Amendment brought legal freedom to the real slaves…  The government empowered itself to interfere with property, to redefine citizenship, and to protect individual rights – but not theirs.”  Their pronouncements were “a manifesto about the right to rise.”

            There were still difficulties to getting bankruptcy legislation passed however.  A key Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens clashed with Jenckes.   Stevens and his supporters could not “suffer rebel debtors to benefit from a bankruptcy bill” – which caused the Jenckes faction to complain that while Stephens was happy to free the slaves, he turned his back on the debt-slavery of his own constituents.   Finally, “on the last day of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, on a 2 March 1867, Congress approved both the Bankruptcy Act and the Reconstruction Act of 1867.”

 

            But the American ideal of “a right to rise” as an inalienable birthright continues to wage war with another American ideal of the right to property.   Currently, these questions complicate the current debate on the minimum wage laws.  Does a wage which is insufficient to live on amount to a defacto ‘slave wage’, which benefits the consumer, at the expense of the worker’s “right to rise”.   If “the business of America is business”, do insufficient wages keep capable citizens idle and ‘out of the game’?  Do insufficient wages constrict the citizens’ inalienable right to participate?  

            This is a discussion that continues, and probably will continue, for a long time.

Photo by Carl Nelson of a model

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