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the obligation of his contract. In the case at bar the defendant has given his promissory note to pay the plaintiff a sum of money on or before a certain day. The contract binds him to pay that sum on that day; and this is its obligation. Any law which releases a part of this obligation must, in the literal sense of the word, impair it. Much more must a law impair it which makes it totally invalid, and entirely discharges it.
The words of the constitution, then, are express, and incapable of being misunderstood. They admit of no variety of construction, and are acknowledged to apply to that species of contract, an engagement between man and man for the payment of money, which has been entered into by these parties. Yet the opinion, that this law is not within the prohibition of the constitution, has been entertained by those who are entitled to . great respect, and has been supported by arguments which deserve to be seriously considered.
It has been contended, that, as a contract can only bind a man to pay to the full extent of his property, it is an implied condition that he may be discharged on surrendering the whole of it.
But it is not true that the parties have in view only the property in possession when the contract is formed, or that its obligation does not extend to future acquisitions. Industry, talents, and integrity constitute a fund which is as confidently trusted as property itself. Future acquisitions are therefore liable for contracts; and to release them from this liability impairs their obligation.
It has been argued that the states are not prohibited from passing bankrupt laws, and that the essential principle of such laws is to discharge the bankrupt from all past obligations; that the states have been in the constant practice of passing insolvent laws, such as that of New York; and if the framers of the constitution had intended to deprive them of this power, insolvent laws would have been mentioned in the prohibition ; that the prevailing evil of the times, which produced this clause in the constitution, was the practice of emitting paper money, of
making property which was useless to the creditor a discharge of his debt, and of changing the time of payment by authorizing distant instalments. Laws of this description, not insolvent laws, constituted, it is said, the mischief to be remedied; and laws of this description, not insolvent laws, are within the true spirit of the prohibition.
The constitution does not grant to the states the power of passing bankrupt laws, or any other power; but finds them in possession of it, and may either prohibit its future exercise entirely, or restrain it so far as national policy may require. It has so far restrained it as to prohibit the passage of any law impairing the obligation of contracts. Although, then, the states may, until that power shall be exercised by congress, pass laws concerning bankrupts; yet they cannot constitutionally introduce into such laws a clause which discharges the obligations the bankrupt has entered into. It is not admitted, that, without this principle, an act cannot be a bankrupt law; and if it were, that admission would not change the constitution, nor exempt such acts from its prohibitions.
The argument drawn from the omission in the constitution to prohibit the states from passing insolvent laws admits of several satisfactory answers. It was not necessary, nor would it have been safe, had it even been the intention of the framers of - the constitution to prohibit the passage of all insolvent laws, to enumerate particular subjects to which the principle they intended to establish should apply. The principle was the inviolability of contracts. This principle was to be protected in whatsoever form it might be assailed. To what purpose enumerate the particular modes of violation which should be forbidden, when it was intended to forbid all ? Had an enumeration of all the laws which might violate contracts been attempted, the provision must have been less complete and involved in more perplexity than it now is. The plain and simple declaration, that no state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts, includes insolvent laws, and all other laws, so far as they infringe the principle the convention intended to hold sacred, and no farther.
But a still more satisfactory answer to this argument is that the convention did not intend to prohibit the passage of all insolvent laws. To punish honest insolvency by imprisonment for life, and to make this a constitutional principle, would be an excess of inhumanity which will not readily be imputed to the illustrious patriots who framed our constitution, nor to the people who adopted it. The distinction between the obligation of a contract, and the remedy given by the legislature to enforce that obligation, has been taken at the bar, and exists in the nature of things. Without impairing the obligation of the contract, the remedy may certainly be modified as the wisdom of the nation shall direct. Confinement of the debtor may be a punishment for not performing his contract, or may be allowed as a means of inducing him to perform it. But the state may refuse to inflict this punishment, or may withhold this means, and leave the contract in full force. Imprisonment is no part of the contract, and simply to release the prisoner does not impair its obligation. No argument can be fairly drawn from the sixty-first section of the act for establishing a uniform system of bankruptcy, which militates against this reasoning. That section declares that the act shall not be construed to repeal or annul the laws of any state then in force for the relief of insolvent debtors, except so far as may respect persons and cases clearly within its purview; and in such cases it affords its sanction to the relief given by the insolvent laws of the state, if the creditor of the prisoner shall not, within three months, proceed against him as a bankrupt.
The insertion of this section indicates an opinion in congress that insolvent laws might be considered as a branch of the bankrupt system, to be repealed or annulled by an act for establishing that system, although not within its purview. It was for that reason only that a provision against this construction could be necessary. The last member of the section adopts the provisions of the state laws, so far as they apply to cases within the purview of the act. This section certainly attempts no construction of the constitution, nor does it suppose any provision in the insolvent laws impairing the obligation of contracts. It leaves them to operate, so far as constitutionally they may, unaffected by the act of congress, except where that act may apply to individual cases.
The argument which has been pressed most earnestly at the bar is, that, although all legislative acts, which discharge the obligation of a contract without performance, are within the very words of the constitution, yet an insolvent act, containing this principle, is not within its spirit, because such acts have been passed by colonial and state legislatures from the first settlement of the country, and because we know, from the history of the times, that the mind of the convention was directed to other laws, which were fraudulent in their character, which enabled the debtor to escape from his obligation and yet hold his property, not to this, which is beneficial in its operation.
Before discussing this argument, it may not be improper to premise, that, although the spirit of an instrument, especially of a constitution, is to be respected not less than its letter, yet the spirit is to be collected chiefly from its words. It would be dangerous in the extreme to infer from extrinsic circumstances that a case, for which the words of an instrument expressly provide, shall be exempted from its operation. Where words conflict with each other, where the different clauses of an instrument bear upon each other, and would be inconsistent, unless the natural and common import of words be varied, construction becomes necessary, and a departure from the obvious meaning of words is justifiable. But if in any case the plain meaning of a provision, not contradicted by any other provision in the same instrument, is to be disregarded, because we believe the framers of that instrument could not intend what they say, it must be one in which the absurdity and injustice of applying the provision to the case would be so monstrous that all mankind would, without hesitation, unite in rejecting the application.
This is certainly not such a case. It is said the colonial and state legislatures have been in the habit of passing laws of this description for more than a century ; that they have never been the subject of complaint, and consequently could not be within the view of the general convention.
The fact is too broadly stated. The insolvent laws of many, indeed of by far the greater number, of the states do not contain this principle. They discharge the person of the debtor, but leave his obligation to pay in full force. To this the constitution is not opposed.
But were it even true that this principle had been introduced generally into those laws, it would not justify our varying the construction of the section. Every state in the union, both while a colony and after becoming independent, had been in the practice of issuing paper money; yet this practice is in terms prohibited. If the long exercise of the power to emit bills of credit did not restrain the convention from prohibiting its future exercise, neither can it be said that the long exercise of the power to impair the obligation of contracts should prevent a similar prohibition. It is not admitted that the prohibition is more express in the one case than in the other. It does not, indeed, extend to insolvent laws by name, because it is not a law by name, but a principle, which is to be forbidden ; and this principle is described in as appropriate terms as our language affords.
Neither, as we conceive, will any admissible rule of construction justify us in limiting the prohibition under consideration to the particular laws which have been described at the bar, and which furnished such cause for general alarm. What were those laws ?
We are told they were such as grew out of the general distress following the war in which our independence was established. To relieve this distress, paper money was issued; worthless lands, and other property of no use to the creditor, were made a tender in payment of debts; and the time of payment stipulated in the contract was extended by law. These were the peculiar evils of the day. So much mischief was done, and so much