( Originally Published 1879 )
But, while you are generous, see to it that you are also just. Do not give away what does not belong to you. Let me warn you, on account of its moral bearings, against debt. Nothing more effectually robs one of his best energies, takes the bloom from his cheek and peace from his pillow, than pecuniary obligations. And that is not all, nor the worst; debt is a foe to a man's honesty. Avoid all meanness; but shun as a pestilence the habit of running thoughtlessly into debt. Let your expenses be always short of your income.
" Of what a hideous progeny of ill," says Douglas Jerrold, "is debt the father! What meanness, what invasions of self respect, what cares, what double-dealing! How in due season, it will carve the frank, open face into wrinkles; how like a knife it will stab the honest heart. And then its transformations. How it has been known to change a goodly face into a mask of brass; how with the evil custom of debt, has the true man become a callous trickster ! A freedom from debt, and what nourishing sweetness may be found in cold water; what toothsomeness in a dry crust; what ambrosial nourishment in a hard egg ! Be sure of it, he who dines out of debt, though his meal be a biscuit and an onion, dines in 'The Apollo.' And then, for raiment, what warmth in a threadbare coat, if the tailor's receipt be in your pocket! what Tyrian purple in the faded waistcoat, the vest not owed for; how glossy the well worn hat, if it covers not the aching head of a debtor! Next the home sweets, the outdoor recreation of the free man. The street door falls not a, knell on his heart; the foot of the staircase, though he lives on the third pair, sends no spasms through his anatomy; at the rap of his door he can crow `come in,' and his pulse still beats healthfully, his heart sinks not in his bowels. See him abroad! How he returns look for look with any passenger; how he saunters; now meeting an acquaintance, he stands and gossips, but then this man knows no debt; debt that casts a drug in the richest wine; that makes the food of the gods unwholesome, indigestible; that sprinkles the banquets of a Lucullus with ashes, and drops soot in the soup of an emperor; debt that like the moth, makes valueless furs and velvets, enclosing the wearer in a festering prison, (the shirt of Nessus was a shirt not paid for;) debt that writes upon frescoed halls the handwriting of the attorney; that puts a voice of terror in the knocker; that makes the heart quake at the haunted fireside; debt, the invisible demon that walks abroad with a man, now quickening his steps, now making him look on all sides like a hunted beast, and now bringing to his face the ashy hue of death as the unconscious passenger looks glancingly upon him! Poverty is a bitter draught, yet may, and sometimes can, with advantage, be gulped down. Though the drinker makes wry faces, there may, after all, be a wholesome goodness in the cup. But debt, however courteously it may he offered, is the cup of Syren; and the wine, spiced and delicious though it be, is poison. The man out of debt, though with a flaw in his jerkin, a crack in his shoe leather, and a hole in his hat, is still the son of liberty, free as the singing lark above him; but the debtor, although clothed in the utmost bravery, what is he but a serf out upon a holiday—a slave to be reclaimed at any instant by his owner, the creditor? My son, if poor, see Hyson in the running spring; see thy mouth water at a last week's roll; think a threadbare coat the only wear; and acknowledge a whitewashed garret the fittest housing place for a gentleman; do this, and flee debt. So shall thy heart be at rest and the sheriff confounded."
Somebody truly says that one debt begets another. If a man owes you a dollar, he is sure to owe you a grudge, too, and he is generally more ready to pay interest on the latter than on the former. Contracting debts is not unlike the man who goes to sea without a compass -he may steer clear of rocks, sandbars, a lee shore, and breakers, but the chances are greatly against him; and, if he runs foul of either, ten to one he is lost. The present indiscriminate credit system is a labyrinth, the entrance is easy, but how to get out—that's the question. It is an endless chain, and if one link breaks in a particular community, it degrades the whole. The concussion may break many more, create a panic, ' and the chain become useless. If this misfortune would cure the evil, it would be a blessing in disguise; but so deeply rooted is this system among us, that no sooner is one chain destroyed than another is manufactured ; an increasing weight is put upon it ; presently some of its links snap, another concussion is produced, and creates a new panic ; car after car rushes down the inclined plane of bankruptcy, increasing ing the mass of broken fragments and general ruin, all so commingled that a Philadelphia lawyer, .aided by constables and sheriffs, can bring but little order out of the confusion. At the outset, especially among merchants, a ruinous tax is imposed by this system upon the vendor and vendee. The seller, in addition to a fair profit for cash in hand, adds a larger per cent. to meet losses from bad debts, but which often falls far short of the mark. Each purchaser, who is ultimately able to pay, bears the proportionate burden of this tax, and both contribute large sums to indulge those who cannot, and what is worse, those who never intend to pay ; thus encouraging fraud. On every hand we see people living on credit, putting off pay day to the last, making in the end some desperate effort, either by begging or borrowing, to scrape the money together, and then struggling on again, with the canker of care eating at their heart, to the inevitable goal of bankruptcy. If people would only make a push at the beginning, instead of the end, they would save themselves all this misery. The great secret of being solvent, and well-to-do, and comfortable, is to get ahead of your expenses. Eat and drink this month what you earned last month—not what you are going to earn next month. There are, no doubt, many persons so unfortunately situated that they can never accomplish this. No man can to a certainty guard against ill health; no man can insure himself a well-conducted, helpful family, or a permanent income. Friendships are broken over debts; forgeries and murders are committed on their account; and, however considered, they are a source of cost and annoyance—and that continually. They break in everywhere upon the harmonious relations of men ; they render men servile or tyrannous, as they chance to be debtors or creditors ; they blunt sensitiveness to personal independence, and, in no respect that we can fathom, do they advance the general well-being.