Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Bankruptcy of Millard Fillmore

On July 9, 1850, upon the death of President Zachary Taylor (who served only one year), Vice President Millard Fillmore became President of the United States. "Millard Fillmore demonstrated that through methodical industry and some competence an uninspiring man could make the American dream come true," proclaims White House historians at whitehouse.gov. He served one term in which he facilitated the passage of the Compromise of 1850.

Prior to the Presidency, Mr. Fillmore was a New York senator.  In 1831, he engineered the passage of New York's first bankruptcy law, which eliminated debt imprisonment, freed debtors already in jail, and established rules for discharging debts. The federal government followed suit in 1833.

The theme of imprisonment, and debtors' prisons specifically, was a common one in the works of Charles Dickens, a contemporary of Millard Fillmore. Writing in Little Dorrit, he depicts Marshalsea Prison where Dickens' father was imprisoned in the 1820s.

"Whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving stones of the extinct Marshalsea Jail. He will see its narrow yard to the right, and to the left, very little altered, if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among crowding ghosts of so many miserable years." 

Further Reading
Article in San Francisco Chronicle re: movement to change the name of Fillmore St
Millard Fillmore in Wikipedia
Article in NY Times regarding modern debtors prisons
The Fillmore in San Francisco
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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.