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Abridgment of the Debates of Congress, from 1789 to 1856. From Gales and Seatons' Annals of Congress; from their Register of debates; and from the official reported debates, by John C. Rives online

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Online LibraryUnited States. CongressAbridgment of the Debates of Congress, from 1789 to 1856. From Gales and Seatons' Annals of Congress; from their Register of debates; and from the official reported debates, by John C. Rives → online text (page 153 of 184)
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Tuesday, December 20.
Mutiny and Executions on Board the Brig
Mr. GwiiT asked the permission of the House
to offer the following resolution :

Resolved, That the President of the United States
be requested to communicate to this House what-
ever official information may have been received at
the Navy Department relative to the alleged design
of mutiny on board the United States brig Somers,
under the command of Alexander Slidell McKenzie ;
and what number of persons have been executed
for said offence ; their names and raulc ; and the
proceedings which were had on board of said vessel
in reference thereto.

Mr. Wise suggested to the gentleman from
Mississippi, that, as a court of inquiry was to
be called, from which official information would
be received in a very few weeks, it would be
better to postpone his resolution, until the
court had been held.

Mr. GwiN intimated his intention to press
his resolution, that the necessary information
might be got from the President.

Mr. G. moved a suspension of the rules for
the reception of his resolution, to which objec-
tion had been made.

The motion was negatived.

The Bankrupt Law.

Mr. Everett moved that the House take up
the bill to repeal the bankrupt law.

The motion was agreed to.

Mr. EvEEBTT said he now offered this bill
for the repeal of the bankrupt law, because he
conceived it to be destroying confidence be-
tween man and man ; and seemed to be a shel-
ter for those who were disposed to live without
labor. Its future operation he looked upon as
injurious; and it would be difficult to ingraft
any amendment upon the present act which
would diminish its evils. He said he did not
propose to commit this bill, because he was in
favor of a total repeal of the bankrupt law ;
and, therefore, its committal was unnecessary.
If, however, such a motion should be made, he
should consider it a test question between those
who desired the continuance, and those who
desired the repeal of that law.

Mr. Barnaed said : This motion for a repeal
of tlie bankrupt law came from Vermont, and
from his excellent and learned friend from that

State, (Mr. Evbeett,) who took the pains to
declare, at this and at the last session of Con-
gress, that, upon the whole, the bankrupt act
was the best and wisest law that Congress had
ever passed. Now it was to be repealed upon
the motion, of the very gentleman who made
this eulogium. Considering the source from
which that motion emanated, and considering
the sort of support which it was about to re-
ceive, it struck his mind as one of the most
alarming movements he had ever witnessed in
the political world. It went far to prove the
truth of the charge so often made against this
nation — that its legislation was destined to be
unstable ; not guided and governed, as it ought
to be, by the settled, well-considered, well-di-
gested opinions of the people of the country ;
but that it was destined to be disturbed by
every wave of popular sentiment — to follow, in
short, not only the shiftings and turnings of
popular sentiment, but popular error, and pop-
ular delusion. That such a thing as popular
error and popular delusion existed, as well in
this country as in others, he was not afraid or
ashamed to say. ■ By unsettled, ill-digested
popular opinion, he never had been — and so
help him God ! — never would be governed.

But Vermont demanded the repeal of the
bankrupt law ; and, therefore, it was to be re-
pealed. Vermont was a creditor State — she
was in the happy condition of owing nobody,
and everybody was indebted to her ; and her
Legislature, at its last session, passed a resolu-
tion instructing her Senators, and requesting
her Representatives in Congress, to procure
the repeal of that law. He denied the right of
Vermont to dictate to Congress upon this sub-
ject, or upon any other. She might express
her opinions, it was true ; hut the opinions that
governed here were those of the members of
the National Legislature, and not those of the
members of her State Legislature. He was ut-
terly hostile to this doctrine of instruction, let
it come from what source it might, avowed or
not avowed. What security was there for leg-
islation, if the representatives of a State — the
very same men — were to be governed one day
by one set of opinions, and another day by an-
other, just as the waves of popular sentiment
ebbed and flowed. Vermont did not, it seem-
ed, like to see her debtors escape, and, in com-
mon with almost all other creditors, she had a
very great reluctance to see the dead body of
debt buried out of her sight. Well, this might
be a very natural feeling ; but it was a morbid
one, which ought not to be encouraged. Cred-
itors were not buzzards, to feed on carrion ;
and he did not want to see the dead bodies
kept above ground till they tainted the whole

He had remarked that he coiild not see any
security for legislation in the country, unless
party and party men were to be precluded from
influencing it to suit their temporary purposes.
If they could not he, then the legislation of the
country would be blown about by every popu-



3d Sess.]

The Bankrupt Law.

[December, 1842.

lar gale. Unless the Representatives woulil
abide by their own opinions after having once
promulgated them, he was free to declare that
there could be no stability in the policy of the

But his excellent friend from Vermont (Mr.
Everett) had discovered that the bankrupt
law had performed its office ; that it had ful-
filled Its objects, and, therefore, ought to be
repealed. He further avowed, that it was his
opinion at the time the act was passed, that it
should have been limited to the term of one
year ; that it ought to be a temporary law.
What was a temporary law? What was it
but repudiation in its most odious form — repu-
diation by individuals of their own debts at
their own time ; a proclamation by debtors of
a jubilee — not like that of the Jews, which,
occurring at regular and stated periods, credi-
tors as well as debtors could prepare themselves
for — but a jubilee, the time of which was to be
prescribed by the debtors themselves. Such a
bankrupt law was not the establishment of a
rule of law ; it was the establishment of an ex-
ception to a rule of law, in the face of the law
itself. It was a law by which you open the
prison doors, and let loose those confined at the
moment ; though at the next day the jails may
be as full as ever — and of those, too, who are
not to be set at liberty. Was that a bankrupt
law in the understanding of the constitution ?
The constitution authorized Congress to pass
uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy :
but could a law of a year's duration be called a
uniform law ? It was not a law, because it was
not a rule of conduct affecting all alike ; but it
was a mere partial arbitrary act of arbitrary
power, interposing between the creditor and
his debtor, to break up for the time being the
relations between them, and to take away the
power which the law gave the former over the
latter. In this way, the creditor, in his turn,
might be ruined and driven to bankruptcy ;
though, in consequence of the temporary nature
of the law, he would be precluded from its ben-
efits. Mr. B. said he denied the power of Con-
gress to pass any such law. It had the power
to pass a permanent and uniform law, and he
admitted that it had the power to repeal it ;
but it had no power to pass a bankrupt law
that was not permanent and uniform. Such a
bankrupt law as was contemplated by the con-
stitution would have the tendency to prevent
bankruptcy ; but a temporary law, such as was
contemplated by the gentleman from Vermont,
would have the tendency to encourage bank-
ruptcy, and to encourage extravagance and
speculation, by the hope held out that a proc-
lamation of jubilee would be made to free
debtors for the time being from the power of
their creditors.

If, then, this bankrupt law was to be repeal-
ed, let it be because it was inexpedient ; be-
cause such a law ought never to have been
passed; but, for Heaven's sake, do not let it be

repealed on the ground that it has accomplished
the object for which it was enacted.

Mr. B. said he had no manner of doubt but
that very much of the influence which was
abroad in the country, and was brought to
bear on the House at the time the bankrupt
law was passed, was that of individuals, who,
if they did not then hold the sentiments advanc-
ed now by his friend from Vermont, were yet
willing to receive the benefits of them ; in
other words, they were willing that a tempora-
ry law should be passed to relieve them from
their embarrassments, to be repealed, or to ex-
pire at the time they came to be creditors. He
prayed and besought gentlemen, therefore, if
they meant to vote for the repeal, to put their
votes on better grounds than those of his friend
from Vermont. Let the law be repealed, if it
is to be repealed, because it is a bad law ; but
do not let it be repealed because it was intend-
ed as a temporary measure, and because it has
fulfilled its objects.

But why should the bankrupt law be repeal-
ed ? He addressed himself to those who had
been its friends. What was the greatest objec-
tion to the measure, in the minds of intelligent
men, at the time of its passage ? Was it not
because of its retrospective operation, violating,
in their opinions, one of the provisions of the
constitution, by impairing the obligation of con-
tracts? That objection was now almost re-
moved. The force of the bankrupt law in re-
gard to old cases was almost spent ; and it was
now about to commence its most wholesome
and beneficent functions, by operating upon
cases which have arisen since its enactment.
The constitutional objection was, therefore, no
longer in force.

After some further remarks from Mr. B.,
showing the benefits derived, and to be derived,
from the bankrupt act, he concluded by moving
to commit the bill to the Committee on the Ju-
diciary, with instructions to bring in a bill to
repeal that part of the law providing for volun-
tary bankruptcy, and to provide that this shall
take place in 18 months from the passage of the

Mr. B. said the House was aware that, in
the other branch of Congress, a resolution had
been adopted calling upon the Secretary of
State for information in relation to this sub
ject; and he hoped that the House would wait
till that information was received, and not, by
precipitate legislation, run the risk of commit-
ting an act of cruelty and injustice.

Mr. C. J. Ingbesoll said he should like to
move the adoption of instructions to the com-
mittee, in case the bill was referred to their
consideration. He, therefore, sent to the Chair
the following instructions :

"And that the said committee be instructed to
report a bill excluding the voluntary provision from
the present bankrupt act, and including banks."

Mr. Baenaed inquired whether the motion
was in order ; to which



December, 1842,]

7%e Bankrupt Law.

[27th Cong.

The Spkaeee replied in the affirmative.

Mr. 0. J. Ingeesoll modified his instructions
by striking out the word hanks, and substitut-
ing the words trading corporations.

Mr. WiNTHEOP only wished to explain simply
the reasons which should induce him to vote
against the repeal of this law, representing, as
he did, a great commercial community.

The power of Congress to enact a bankrupt
law was not implied merely, but was found in
the category of these clearly expressed and
enumerated powers about which there was no
dispute. Now, he held it to be the duty of
Congress to exercise its power ; and not to ex-
ercise it, a positive neglect and omission — not
less than it would be to omit to exercise the
power given to regulate commerce, establish
courts, coin money, provide for the common
defence of the country, and, in short, any other
power expressed among those named in the
constitution. He was aware that it had been
suggested by his friend from Vermont, (Mr.
EvEEETT,) that, though the present law might
be repealed, another might be enacted. But
when would such an event occur ? When could
it be expected ? Certainly not until it should
be called for by the people, to sweep off the
load of indebtedness that might be upon them ;
and then the law would itself be swept off,
after having performed its office. Such was
the fate of the first bankrupt law, and such
seemed to be the inevitable destiny of this.

But the language of the constitution was re-
markably strong. It was, not that " Congress
shall have power to pass" but to " establish a
uniform system of bankruptcy." Would a mere
passage of an act be a fulfilment of the power
to establish a system ? So far from it, the re-
verse of the proposition would be true ; and
such passage be a mere temporary remedy.
Such a course — the enactment of a bankrupt
law for a particular temporary purpose — could
be justified on no principle whatever. He,
therefore, protested against the introduction of
a bankrupt law at irregular intervals, and be-
fore the trader and the man of business could
be aware how to act. Anticipating the results
which had flowed from the insertion of the re-
trospective principle in the present act, he had
voted for it with reluctance ; and, had he be-
lieved that the whole act was destined to be so
soon expunged from the statute-book, he should
not have voted for it at all. And here he
would make a suggestion to that gentleman,
who had denounced the retrospective character
of the act ; and that was, that, by voting for
the repeal of the law at the present time, they
would become responsible for its revival here-
after. The only mode of preventing the enact-
ment of a retrospective law was to establish the
prospective provision of the present law upon a
firm basis. True, the present law might not be
perfect, and might require remedy in its details.
What he had to say was, let it be perfected ;
let it be limited in its operation to traders, if
necessary ; and even let a provision be inserted

comprehending banks, under certain circum-
stances and regulations. It did seem to him
that the responsibility of the enactment of a
retrospective bankrupt act hereafter would rest
on those gentlemen who should vote for the re-
peal of the present.

There was one more view of the subject
which he would mention. He meant the mon-
strous injustice of an immediate and uncondi-
tional repeal of the law. It was known that
many debtors, responding, as had been said, to
the first sound of the trumpet, had advanced
and obtained relief, having first stripped them-
selves for the purpose, and leaving as little
matter to be decided upon by the courts
as effects to be distributed among the credi-
tors. A repeal of the law would not take
away the benefits these men had obtained,
whilst it would give the same desperate debtors
the further advantage of any new bankrupt law
which might be enacted hereafter. On the
other hand, there were numbers whose affairs,
not altogether hopeless, left the prospect of dis-
tributing something to their creditors — men
whose applications for the benefit of the act
had been held back, in the hope of making an
honorable compromise; or whose cases had
been delayed in the courts by arguments upon
points of law ; these would be altogether de-
prived of the advantages secured by more ex-
peditious, and, perhaps, less scrupulous, debt-
ors. In conclusion, he hoped — if it was not
too late to hope — that the House would pause
before it resolved to wipe out altogether the
law now in force.

Mr. Payne remarked that one of the strong-
est objections which he had to the passage of
this act, was its retrospective character. He
was not fully persuaded that the Government
had power to pass a law absolving individuals
from their contracts. He could not believe it
to be legal and proper for the Government to
destroy the relations subsisting between debtor
and creditor. Government, as he thought,
should, at least, have permitted the obligations
between the creditor and his security to be

These were some of his objections to the law
at the beginning ; but, with regard to a pro-
spective bankrupt law, properly established, he
did not then, nor did he now, object. All ob-
jections, however, were disregarded by those
who controlled the action of this House ; and a
uniform system of bankruptcy, to be perpetual
as the law of the country, was passed ; and
this was the first time that the avowal had been
made — as it had been made this morning—that
the object of the bankrupt law was to violate
private contracts, and to turn men loose from
their obligations. It was immaterial how they
regarded it here ; but the eyes of all the com-
mercial world were turned upon them ; and to
Europe it would appear that they repealed the
law, after it had done — what? Eeleased at
least the debtor from the obligation of his con-
tracts. It appeared tu him this proposition



3d Sess.]

The Bankrupt Law,

[December, 1842^

portrayed, more clearly than any thing else
could do, the true object the gentlemen who
advocated it had in pressing it on the country.
Now, if he might be permitted to advise those
gentlemen who passed this law, he should
say : For Heaven's sake do not lay it on this
exclusive ground — that the object was to re-
lease the debtor from the obligation of his con-
tract, for which he had received a valuable

He would declare again, that, if a bankrupt
law were established, striking out the volunta-
ry feature, and making it such a bankrupt law
as was contemplated by the constitution, he
should not object to see it become part of the
permanent policy of our country. But if they
voted for the bill which was now presented to
the House, for the repeal of the existing bank-
rupt law, they would commit themselves with
regard to the constitutionality of the whole
measure. The proviso was designed to secure
to those who had taken the first step, the ben-
efit of the existing bankrupt law up to the 5th
of the present month ; and when this bill was
introduced, he gave notice that he should move
to strike out that proviso ; but he was con-
scious of the great difiiculty which must result.
There was much force in what had been said
by gentlemen on this subject, respecting the
indecent haste of bankrupts to avail themselves
of the law, to release them from their obliga-
tions ; whereas, those who were less hasty, and
who regretted the necessity to avail themselves
of the provisions of the law, and, therefore,
held back, were to be deprived of the benefits
of the law. There were difficulties, too, in the
way of their voting for this bill to repeal the
bankrupt law, with such a provision as would
compromise them on the constitutional ques-
tion which it involved ; and the whole case af-
forded a striking illustration of the evil of that
hasty legislation which was forced on the coun-
try without consideration by the operation of
the gag rule, which did not permit an i to be
dotted, or a i to be crossed. Under all the cir-
cumstances, he did not know that he could go
for the repeal, as the bill now stood ; for he
was unwilling to commit himself with regard
to the constitutional question.

The question recurring on Mr. Ingeesoll's
motion to amend the motion to commit with
instructions —

Mr. Abstold moved to strike out that part of
the instructions relating to voluntary bank-
rupts, so that tlie instructions would read " to
report a bankrupt bill including corporations
not owned by States."

Mr. BowNE said : Every member on that
floor understood well what was the will of the
whole country, as well as that of his constitu-
ents, in relation to this question. I-t had been
long before the public ; and the public mind,
having weighed it in the balance, had, as far as
he could understand it, declared it had been
found wanting. He was ready to act on it

now, though he confessed he would like to see
some little modification of the bill before the
House. If he could not get that modification,
he would vote for the bill as it was ; though he
would not vote for a single motion that, in his
view, would have a tendency to defeat the

The only modification he wanted to make
was a proviso that the repeal shall take efi'eot
from the passage of the act, so as to leave
all persons who had already commenced the
preliminary proceedings of bankruptcy, under
the faith of a law of Congress, at liberty to
consummate them. There would be great cru-
elty and injustice in cutting off those who had
incurred a heavy expense to obtain the benefits
of this law, and who did so under the faith of
an act of Congress. With this proviso, he
would be perfectly satisfied to vote for the bill
before them ; though, if he could not get it, he
would vote for the bill as it then stood.

Mr. Ohaelbs Beown said he was not in so
great a hurry to repeal the bankrupt law as
many gentlemen seemed to be. He was op-
posed to its passage, and was still opposed to it
as it stood upon the statute-book ; and if it
could not be amended as he desired, he would
vote for its i-epeal. But, before he voted for
its repeal, he was desirous of making a fair and
full effort to have embraced within its provi-
sions all the banks and other trading corpora-
tions of the country. The operation of the
voluntary provisions of the law, as they were
called, had been almost unmitigated evil. But
it had done its worst ; and, if left in full force,
could do comparatively but little more evil. It
had deranged and destroyed all the long-estab-
lished relations of debtor and creditor — had in-
validated contracts, and released from their
obligations all the large and princely debtors.
It had afforded an opportunity for thousands to
be released from their debts, who, otherwise,
would have paid them, and, thereby, enabled
those to whom they were indebted, in their
turn to pay their debts. This last class — the
creditors of those who have taken the benefit
of tlie bankrupt law — have been made bankrupts
by its operation ; and now, by its repeal, you
will leave them without remedy. Was this
just? Was that the way the obligation of con-
tracts ought to be maintained ? Much, if not
all, the opposition in the public mind against
the bankrupt law, was owing to its volun-
tary and retrospective action — its violation of
past engagements and existing contracts. But
these had already been cancelled by it; and
the repeal of the law would not restore these
obligations — would not place them in the situ-
ation they were before its passage. The evil it
had done could not, therefore, be remedied. If
it remained in force, it could now only affect
contracts made under it, and could do no posi-
tive wrong. Many had been made bankrupt
by the effects of the law, who, otherwise,
would have paid all their debts. He doubted



December, 1842.]

The Bankrupt Law.

[27™ Cong.

the policy or justice of making these its victims,
and then to deprive them of its remedies by

Before its passage, every man knew when he
incnrred a debt what were the penalties for
non-payment. All knew what they had a right
to expect and demand as creditors, or to give
or suffer as debtors ; all the debtors and cred-
itors stood upon the same platform. If they
repealed the law before all the relations of
these parties that have been changed by it have
been arranged according to its provisions, man-
ifest injustice would be done to a large portion
of them. Those who have been released, have
had especial benefits conferred upon them ;
which especial benefits have bankrupted others,
who will be left under all their obligations to
others, again, without claims on those who were
Indebted to them. This was, he said, a great
wrong, and one inflicted by the Government.


Wednesday, December 21.
The Bankrupt Act.
Mr. Benton presented a petition from Wash-
ington county, Vermont, by W. Eichardson,
praying -the repeal of the bankrupt act, and ac-
companied by a letter to him, stating that the
people of Vermont were as unanimous as the
Legislature of their State in condemning that
act. Mr. B. would take the opportunity which
the presentation of this petition, offered, to de-
clare that, holding the bankrupt act to be un-
constitutional at six different points, (the ex-

Online LibraryUnited States. CongressAbridgment of the Debates of Congress, from 1789 to 1856. From Gales and Seatons' Annals of Congress; from their Register of debates; and from the official reported debates, by John C. Rives → online text (page 153 of 184)