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An Impartial Hand

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In a recent New Yorker article on the history of debtor imprisonment*, Jill Lepore briefly mentions a 1754 Rhode Island imprint titled The Ill Policy and Inhumanity of Imprisoning Insolvent Debtors (Vault, Alden #142). An impassioned appeal for an end to debtors’ prisons, the only title page attribution is to “An Impartial Hand”. (Probably no relation to Learned Hand, Faithful Hand, Disinterested Hand, or any of these Hands.**) The short pamphlet is a mixture of religiously-based admonition (“How just is the Damnation of JUDAS, who for a little MONEY, betrayed Innocent Blood?”) and rational argumentation (“. . . the wise End of all Laws, is the Good of the Society for which such Laws are made. Is it not best therefore, that each Member in Society, should be employed in some useful Occupation . . .”). The author was well ahead of his or her time: as Lepore points out, it would take nearly a hundred more years for the United States to ban debtors’ prisons.
Although the authorship and publishing details are anonymous, it has long been accepted in bibliographies that this is an imprint from James Franklin’s shop in Newport (more about Franklin in an earlier post).
This copy (one of five known) includes evidence of ownership. A bookplate on the front pastedown identifies it as from the “Estate of William P. Sheffield,” most likely the former U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. The title page also includes pen trials (working on that perfect “of”) and the name Mary Marsh[?].


* Jill Lepore, Annals of Finance, “I.O.U.,” The New Yorker, April 13, 2009, p. 34.
** The English Short Title Catalog lists 59 imprints with “Impartial Hand” as the author. Evan’s Early American Imprints includes A true narrative of a most stupendous trance and vision (requires subscription), written by “An Impartial Hand”. Apparently it was a popular sobriquet.

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