NEW VOICES: Doubts About the Death Penalty Among American Founders

In a recent op-ed in the National Law Journal, historian John Bessler described the ambivalence among American founders toward the death penalty. He noted, "Although early U.S. laws authorized executions, the founders greatly admired a now little-known Italian writer, Cesare Beccaria, who fervently opposed capital punishment. They also were fascinated by the penitentiary system's potential to eliminate cruel punishments." Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Beccaria and other writers on crimes and punishments had satisfied the reasonable world of the unrightfulness and inefficacy of the punishment of crimes by death." James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was one of several founding fathers who sought to reduce the number of executions, saying, "I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishments by any State willing to make it." Bessler concluded, "[T]he Founding Fathers were deeply ambivalent about capital punishment. Indeed, they embraced the principle of Montesquieu and Beccaria that any punishment that goes beyond what is 'absolutely necessary' is 'tyrannical.' In an era of maximum-security prisons and life-without-parole sentences, the death penalty can no longer be considered necessary."

John Bessler is the author of The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution and a professor of law at the University of Baltimore Law School.

(J. Bessler, "Op-Ed: Actually, the Founders Rejected the Death Penalty," National Law Journal, October 27, 2014). See New Voices and History of the Death Penalty.