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William Samuel Johnson was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and president of Columbia College. But before the Revolution he was a creditor’s lawyer, one of America’s first debt collectors. Because the process of legal debt collection could take years Johnson often recommended to his clients that they accept a negotiated settlement rather than engage in lengthy litigation. But this didn’t stop him from employing a tactic that is still effective today, the threat of a lawsuit. The threat of a suit worked for two reasons one being fear and the other ignorance. Just like today most debtors didn’t know the law gave them considerable legal rights. This fact gave Johnson one of his most powerful weapons, the bluff.
If the debtor was knowledgeable of the legal procedures and wasn’t scared by the word lawsuit then convincing the creditor to negotiate was Johnson’s best tactic. However it wasn’t always successful so lawsuits often occurred.
In nineteenth-century America the court process regarding insolvency often served to promote debt negotiation especially following the financial panics of 1819, 1837, 1857, and 1873. On one hand the likelihood of being sued prompted debtors to make payments, just as; on the other hand, ever mounting legal fees encouraged creditors to settle for less than the full amount due. Even when a debt reduction was not agreed to creditors often, when the prospect for payment was good, allowed the debtor more time to make payments.
Debt negotiation was so prevalent in the early 1840s newspapers were filled with reports of debt negotiations that resulted in a savings of time, money, and personal feelings. Settlements of five to thirty cents on the dollar were common. The number of successful debt negotiations in the early 1840s were said to be in the thousands. During this time the ability to cajole payments out of debtors, to entice easier terms out of creditors, and the ability to manipulate lawyers and the legal system was as important to the financial success of a businessman as was salesmanship or technical know-how.
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