The Death Penalty: An American History and Ethics


Death penalty is a highly controversial and emotional subject about which most people seem to have strong opinions. The debate is by no means new there are conflicting references to capital punishment dating back to the Bible. I will argue that although execution has become less and less significant as a punishment for crimes, it has become more and more significant as a means of providing society with criminal monsters.

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In the United States, controversy over capital punishment began in colonial times when, against the wishes of the English Crown, some settlements enacted only a few capital laws. Soon after the War for Independence and the adoption of the Constitution, America’s death penalty debate began in earnest. Armed with the right to free speech afforded by the new democracy, and infused with a “revolutionary spirit” as well as the philosophies of the European Enlightenment, some Americans began to question whether government should have the power to end a life — even the life of a convicted criminal (Cottrol 1641). The earliest arguments both for and against capital punishment were taken directly from the Bible. Early colonial settlements such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, relied on scriptural justification for their capital laws. Abolitionists typically argue that the death penalty is no longer necessary because life imprisonment will incapacitate equally well. Those favoring the death penalty often argue that society must express moral outrage at and condenmation of heinous crimes such as murder. Conversely, abolitionists often argue that rather than upholding the sanctity of life, the death penalty violates it. Opponents argue that a “life” sentence does not always mean that a convicted murderer will remain in prison for the rest of his or her life, nor does it prevent convicted murderers from killing again inside the prison walls. Unlike most other penalties, the death penalty is irrevocable (Haines 34). Therefore, the danger of executing an innocent person is a concern shared by both abolitionists and retentionists. Proponents of capital punishment typically consider deterrence to be one of its fundamental goals. The execution sermons of the early colonies were full of warnings against following in the footsteps of the condemned, and executions were public events designed to instill fear and reverence for the law in the people of the community. These same issues have been the subject of even greater attention and controversy in the modern era, as scientific studies have attempted to determine whether capital punishment acts as a deterrent to murder and/or whether it has a “brutalizing” effect on society (Cottrol 1641).

At first glance, capital punishment might seem to play a very small role in the workings of a criminal justice system largely devoted to prosecuting petty and even victimless crimes. Although the pace of execution in the United States is quickening and the Death Row population is at an all-time high, execution remains a rare phenomenon. In a nation with a quarter of a billion people, where more than twenty thousand murder convictions are handed down annually, it is likely that fewer than a hundred offenders will be executed this year (Haines 34).

Mr. Jones is a police officer working for 30 years in police Department. During two interviews, two main questions were asked: Do you believe that death penalty can prevent crimes rates? Is its ethical to deprive a person his divine right for life? Mr. Jones supposes that death penalty is a good deterrent against new and repeat crimes. The civil relations of life are less complex there is less of poverty and less of oppression. The cry of bread and the approach of general want, are never known: popular sentiment is disposed to mildness, and to the adoption of virtuous restraints. Reparation for the injury done is very justly an object of punishment, or rather the attainment of which justice demands. But, as it cannot, in the nature of things, always be made, it becomes a secondary consideration. While the public exhibition of such facts will have a tendency to elevate public morals, they will have a much greater effect to deter men from the commission of crimes than the punishment of death can possibly have; and, when contrasted with the latter, your Committee do not hesitate which to prefer. Firm, but humane and kind, treatment will subdue that moroseness and obduracy of heart which cruelty and the halter, in prospect, could never effect. Imprisonment for life in the State prison, connected with labor and moral instruction, furnishes also a perpetual admonition to the wicked; whereas the infliction of death is short and transient, and its effects upon such minds are pernicious.

It is obvious to every mind, that hanging a man by the neck, burning him at the stake, strangulation in the prison, or decapitation, cannot reform him or restore any thing to the injured party. What has been said, it is believed, clearly proves that no absolute necessity, and consequently no right, exists for perpetuating a practice so revolting to the better feelings of men; and, could human testimony avail any thing in this case, that of the distinguished Franklin, Rush, and Bentham might be quoted against it, based upon reason, philosophy, and the dictates of humanity. Mr. Jones underlines that the society cannot cope with increased rates of crimes if death penalty would be prohibited. For many criminals, it is the only thing which stop them and prevent society from new crimes.

Mr. Smith, a law enforcement officer. He states that death penalty is unethical and immoral because it violates main human rights and the Constitution. Whether capital punishment and the processes and proceedings necessarily associated therewith violate the Eighth Amendment can be said to depend upon whether the processes are cruel by definition. Cruelty is properly definable as “the infliction of pain or loss without necessity or justification.”. Is the death penalty unconstitutional today within the context of the social and cultural conditions of this nation and of the world? Necessarily, those holdings cause the constitutional question of the validity of capital punishment to be a combined question of law and fact. Mr. Smith questions: What do we then owe to ourselves — what do we owe to the world as a nation? Are we to permit caprice and prejudice to govern us, on a subject interesting to ourselves and interesting to mankind, or are we to remember that a great experiment in civil policy, blended with the dearest interests of humanity, should not be abandoned, until tested by fidelity and candour?

The facts to be adduced refer to the injuries done to society and to the family of the executed man, the extent of pain, both physical and psychological, and generally the social context in such aspects as are relevant to the problem of crime, crime prevention, punishment and the developing culture and humanity of our country. The issue of constitutionality then requires the judges to be acute observers of the times and of the imperatives which spring from an evolving standard of decency. If the death penalty is now repugnant to our evolved standards that mark the progress of a maturing society, then it seems that capital punishment ought to be struck down by judicial action. Under this view capital punishment may be said to comprise unconstitutional cruelty if that institution cannot secure a proper function of society within civilized standards. Can the death penalty be shown to have a proper function? Certainly its function cannot be that of rehabilitation, nor can it be that of confinement, a function which is thoroughly and efficiently served by imprisonment. The burden is to show that the death penalty constitutes, as compared to life imprisonment, and differentially, a deterrent upon future criminal activities. Unless the death penalty has such a proper function in our society, it would seem to be cruel by definition. Not only has no man actually given up to society the right to put an end to his life, not only is no surrender of this right under a social compact ever to be implied, but no man can, under a social contract, or any other contract, give up this right to society, or to any constituent part of society, for this conclusive reason, that the right is not his to be conveyed.


I suppose that corporal punishments and the infliction of death would not prove congenial to the moral sentiments and feelings of the American people: and that the transportation of convicts, is visionary, impracticable, and would not prevent crimes and offences, even if it were adopted in penal statutes. More is now doing to ameliorate the condition and to promote the happiness of the human race, than any period of society has accomplished (Haines 76). Our institutions are established on the will of the people. They are the offspring of enlightened views and independent feelings. Education is more generally diffused here, than elsewhere on the civilized globe. Reformation of the criminal is the great object of punishments in general; and as we have hospitals for the cure of diseases of the body, so we should consider penitentiaries hospitals for the cure of moral diseases; and the detention of convicts in the latter should, as in the former, be till the malady is cured.

Works Cited

Cottrol, R.J. The Death Penalty: An American History. Stanford Law Review, 56, (2004): 1641.

Haines, H. H. Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994. Oxford University Press, 1996.

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DemoEssays. 2022. "The Death Penalty: An American History and Ethics." December 27, 2022.

1. DemoEssays. "The Death Penalty: An American History and Ethics." December 27, 2022.


DemoEssays. "The Death Penalty: An American History and Ethics." December 27, 2022.