When the delegates came to what is now Section 17 of the Bill of Rights - the prohibition against imprisonment for debt - the lively debate over the relative rights of creditors and debtors revealed many of their fundamental assumptions about justice, social inequity, and the free enterprise system.

Sending debtors to prison was a widespread practice in colonial America that remained quite common until the early 19th century, when the rise of popular democracy under President Andrew Jackson led to increasing criticism against the inherent injustice of the system, similar to reformers pushing abolition of slavery. Horror stories were commonplace. For example in 1829 in Boston almost 3,000 prisoners were jailed for debts of less than $20, including 62 prisoners who owed less than $1. (Matthew Baker, et al., 'Debtors' Prisons in America: An Economic Analysis,' University of Connecticut, Department of Economics Working Paper Series, 2009-33, October 2009, p. 4, 21.)

Given the fact that so many Americans were habitually in debt - one history of American bankruptcy is called Republic of Debtors - the notion of locking up hard working men and women alongside criminals simply because their could not pay their bills, became universally anathema. (Apparently the sheer popular loathing for the idea of sending debtors to prison propagated many myths about the extent of the custom. See: Edwin T. Randall, 'Imprisonment for Debt in America: Fact and Fiction,' The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 1, June 1952. Randall quotes a Senator who said the misery and injustice putting honest Americans behind bars could 'turn a Nero pale and make a Caligula shudder.' p. 89)

At the Fairbanks convention the delegates accepted the common American assumption that debtors' prison was an un-American institution, that a poor person should not be locked up because of unpaid debt, that poverty should not be the cause of incarceration, however the heart of the matter was whether to qualify that blanket prohibition: no imprisonment for debt 'except in cases where there is a strong presumption of fraud.'

Most of the lawyers backed the 'strong presumption of fraud' clause - which appears in at least eight state constitutions including North Dakota, Rhode Island, Montana, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, Vermont - claiming it was necessary to protect law-abiding Alaskans against transients, con men and scam artists who periodically came north to fleece the innocent. (William Mack and William B. Hale, Corpus Juris: Being A Complete and Systematic Statement of The Whole Body of the Law, Vol. XII (New York: The American Law Book Co., 1917, p. 939; J.H. Newman, Digest of State Constitutions (Columbus: F.J. Heer Printing Co., 1912), p. 19.)

The fraud presumption exception would allow the legislature to pass legislation that would essentially continue the standard practice under territorial law by which prosecutors and police routinely stopped suspected debt-dodgers before they left the territory under 'civil arrest' or 'provisional detention' so that they 'cannot escape...the arm of the law by jumping on a plane.' As Dorothy Awes explained, the Bill of Rights Committee added the phrase to enable law enforcement in the future state to continue to 'arrest such a person before he can leave the territory.... You wouldn't be able to imprison him just on the strong presumption of fraud, but it would enable you to arrest him so that then he could be brought to trial....'

Delegates who opposed the fraud exception claimed it appeared to be a vaguely worded backdoor method of jailing debtors, with Yule Kilcher labeling it a 'blackmail' provision that could threaten honest laborers on a string of bad luck. John Hellenthal countered that the Territory of Alaska statute then currently on the books had been copied from that of Washington State to protect creditors and responsible borrowers alike from 'absconding debtors' as defined under the law.

'The State of Washington is where we took our Alaska statute from,' Hellenthal said, 'and that's what we want to keep. Everybody seems to agree that an absconding debtor should be given no protection and that we should be able to arrest that sort of man. Now in Washington, our sister state, they arrest them down there when they start out for Alaska, and I think we should arrest them in Alaska when they head back.'

Eventually the delegates voted by a two-one margin to remove the 'strong presumption of fraud' clause, whereupon Delegate Taylor offered an 'absconding debtor' amendment taken directly from the Washington State Constitution; no imprisonment for debt 'except in case of absconding debtors.' (Ben Driftmier, 'Comparative Study of State Constitutions for Provisions Not Found in Our Own,' Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4, October 1912, p. 268.)

Kilcher found this narrower phrasing unacceptable as well. 'It is only a veil thrown over that poor man that's presumed to be fraudulent,' he said. 'An absconding debtor! How are you going to determine who is an absconding debtor?'

But Kilcher was in minority as the delegates voted by an even larger margin - 37 to 14 - to add the 'absconding debtor' exception. The final version of the article would read: 'There shall be no imprisonment for debt. This section does not prohibit civil arrest of absconding debtors.'