[PW] paying one's debt to societyh

John Cowan cowan at mercury.ccil.org
Wed Apr 22 05:16:36 PDT 2015

Solomons1pal at aol.com scripsit:

> Who first suggested that someone committing a crime had  thereby
> incurred a debt to society, a debt hecould pay off by serving a certain
> time in prison?

It's hard to say.  The OED doesn't list "debt to society", and looking
in Google Books produces a confound with an earlier sense of the term,
illustrated here in the Earl of Chesterfield's _Letters To His Son_

    This is certain, that every man receives advantages from society,
    which he could not have if he were the only man in the world :
    therefore, is he not in some measure in debt to society ; and
    is he not obliged to do for others what they do for him ?

As to the sense you're interested in, the earliest use I could find was
in the writings of Lord Kames (1696-1792), the Scottish judge, in his
essay on the history of the criminal law, published in _Historical Law
Tracts (1759).

    He who commits an injury against society, incurs an obligation,
    and contracts a debt to society, of which the creditor is entitled
    to exact the payment.  A criminal unpunished is a gainer at the
    expence of society.

John Cowan          http://www.ccil.org/~cowan        cowan at ccil.org
Half the lies they tell about me are true.
        --Tallulah Bankhead, American actress

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