October 9, 2013 – Philadelphia Inquirer
As the oldest constitutional democracy in the world, the United States is often criticized for continuing to carry out state-sanctioned executions. Over the past couple of generations, every European country, with the exception of Belarus, has outlawed the death penalty. The principle is enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
But we have not always been the throwbacks. In fact, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the English colonies had far fewer capital laws than England and other European states.
My students have been reading the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, written in 1641 as a guide for the colony’s General Court. It included 12 capital laws. Religious crimes such as witchcraft and blasphemy came first, then murder (three different types), then sex crimes (rape was not among them), followed by kidnapping, bearing false witness in a capital case, and treason. That seemed like a lot, until we discovered that the list of capital crimes back in the old country was more than 10 times as long.
The Puritans were certainly not free thinkers. They harassed and tortured religious and political dissenters, and they were perfectly willing to execute criminals in capital cases. But they radically reduced the number of offenses punishable by death under English law.
Forty years later, William Penn established a colony in which the trend continued. Early-18th-century Pennsylvania statutes included only two crimes punishable by death: murder and treason. Quakers’ pacifism certainly contributed to their lack of appetite for capital punishment, as did their belief that there is that of God in every human being. Pennsylvania set the standard for the English colonies and for the rest of the European world.
Since then, in America, the tendency has been toward more capital laws. Even Penn’s proprietary colony added more in the mid-1700s. None of the students guessed that one of those later capital crimes was counterfeiting. At the time, the local economy was entirely dependent on local paper currency, and the danger posed by counterfeiting was so great that Penn’s successors made the production of fake bills punishable by death.
Across the country, a range of transgressions, from inciting slave revolts, to horse and cattle stealing, to rape, to kidnapping, to high-level drug trafficking, have all been, or remain, punishable by death. Federal statutes currently list a number of capital offenses, most falling under the overall definition of treason.
In recent decades, the Supreme Court has generally moved to restrict the crimes for which a person may be sentenced to death. In some cases the states have responded by enacting death-penalty statutes that narrow the definition of a particular capital offense. One wonders whether their goal is simply to come up with justifications for preserving the state’s power to execute its citizens. Shouldn’t we be looking for reasons not to take lives?
Thousands of Americans have been put to death since the founding of our republic, and the documents and data we study in our American history course provide little evidence that the threat of capital punishment has acted as an effective deterrent or that it has made the rest of us safer. It is also difficult to see how the government-sanctioned killing of citizens – even for particularly heinous crimes and even when the evidence is overwhelming – makes us a more just, more humane, or more ethical society.
Of the 18 states in which the death penalty has been abolished, Michigan was the first, in 1846, Maryland the most recent, in 2013. Perhaps by the end of this century, the remaining 32 states and the federal government will turn again in the direction Penn pointed us and leave capital punishment behind for good.