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Novak on Defoe on 'Trade-Murther'

posted by Buce

Bankruptcy scholars mostly know that Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was himself a merchant, sometimes a bankrupt, and a commentator on bankruptcy law. It  seems to me that most literary students of Defoe miss this point; they don’t understand it, or they simply aren’t interested.

One honorable exception is Maximillian A. Novak, whose Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions (2001) gives respectful attention to the bankruptcy issues. In particular, he addresses role in the runup to the "Statute of Anne," the progenitor of all modern bankruptcy law. In 1705-6, Novak writes, "Defoe had been supporting a new bill to regulate the laws of bankruptcy. He devoted a month and a half of the Review [his personal proto-weblog—ed.] to the subject…and eventually published a pamphlet on the subject …"  This pamphlet, he continues:

was mainly devoted to arguing the irrationality of a system that imjprisoned the debtor in a way that made paying back the creditors impossible. … [He also] drew attention to the horror of prison conditions and the families ruined. In addition he maintained that the nation itself loses by driving the bankrupt, with his potential skills, abroad, thereby forfeiting the wealth that might accrue to the nation by his and his family's consumption of goods. Defoe argued for a bill to force all the creditors to agree to the decision of the committees of bankruptcy. 'Otherwise, the bankrupt becomes a victim of a 'sort of Trade-Murther. He is driven to despair, flees, commmits suicide, or joins the army and dies that way.'  … 

As to the particular legislation Defoe

wondered if the law would do any good at all. In his pamphlet on this subject…he regretted that the bill did not reform the worst parts of the system. The bankrupt might still be sent to jail, to perpetual imprisonment; this meant that he would struggle to avoid punishment and be forced to desparate measures. Defoe concluded 'That to make men desperate was the way to make them Knaves; and as there never was any law but some way or other might be evaded or avoided, this would put Men’s Inventions upon the rack for new Methods to defraud their Creditors.' At least the new bill allowed the bankrupt 5 percent of his holdings to try to start anew. Defoe allowed himself some irony over the resulting loss of jobs among gaolers and those involved in arresting debtors, and 'As to the Attorneys, Sollicitors, etc., they may turn their Hands to the more Laudable practice of picking pockets, according to the letter of it, and then in time may meet with the reward of their former Merit, by a way they have often deserv'd it'. In short, he hoped they would be hanged.

Defoe had, of course, his personal experience with debtor distress: he went bankrupt twice and spent most of his adult life in the toils of creditor pressure. He shows amazing resilience, repeatedly coming up with new schemes and devices to make himself prosperous. Only in his final months does he appear "old, sick, and perhaps for the first time in his life in a state of despair." He died at last "of a lethargy," still in hiding from his creditors.

--Quotes from Maximillian E. Novak, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions (2001).

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