Executing Democracy: Capital Punishment and the Making of America, 1683-1807


Executing Democracy: Capital Punishment & the Making of America, 1683-1807 is the first volume of a rhetorical history of public debates about crime, violence, and capital punishment in America. This examination begins in 1683, when William Penn first struggled to govern the rowdy indentured servants of Philadelphia, and continues up until 1807, when the Federalists sought to impose law-and-order upon the New Republic.
     This volume offers a lively ...

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Executing Democracy: Capital Punishment & the Making of America, 1683-1807 is the first volume of a rhetorical history of public debates about crime, violence, and capital punishment in America. This examination begins in 1683, when William Penn first struggled to govern the rowdy indentured servants of Philadelphia, and continues up until 1807, when the Federalists sought to impose law-and-order upon the New Republic.
     This volume offers a lively historical overview of how crime, violence, and capital punishment influenced the settling of the New World, the American Revolution, and the frantic post-war political scrambling to establish norms that would govern the new republic.
     By presenting a macro-historical overview, and by filling the arguments with voices from different political camps and communicative genres, Hartnett provides readers with fresh perspectives for understanding the centrality of public debates about capital punishment to the history of American democracy.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870138690
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2010
  • Series: Rhetoric and Public Affairs Series
  • Pages: 331
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen John Hartnett is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado–Denver. He is the author of several books, including Democratic Dissent and the Cultural Fictions of Antebellum America, winner of the National Communication Association’s James A. Winans-Herbert A. Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations vii

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction. The Rhetorical History of “A Very Hard Choice” 1

Chapter 1 Settler Debauchery, Capital Punishment, and the Theater of Colonial (Dis)Order, 1683-1741 41

Chapter 2 The Paradox of a Republican Revolution Using Executions as Pedagogy, 1768-1784 79

Chapter 3 The Hanging of Abraham Johnstone and the Turning of Terror into Hope, 1797 123

Chapter 4 Enlightenment, Republicanism, and Executions, 1785-1800 161

Conclusion. The Hanging of John M'Kean and the Perils of Sinning in an Age of Reason 211

Notes 219

Bibliography 275

Index 303

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First Chapter


Capital Punishment & the Making of America, 1683-1807
By Stephen John Hartnett

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2010 Stephen John Hartnett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-869-0

Chapter One

Settler Debauchery, Capital Punishment, and the Theater of Colonial (Dis)Order, 1683–1741

* * *

In 1758 English troops stormed Senegal, seizing property valued at more than £250,000. According to Peter Linebaugh, one of the seamen who fought for the Crown in the battle, John Ward, was soon thereafter "hanged [in London] for stealing a watch." Linebaugh thus shows how empires plunder and pillage with impunity while working stiffs, including those trained in the ways of violence by the Crown, are hanged for committing the most trifling crimes. Ward would appear to have been particularly unlucky, for Eric Williams observes that "in 1745 transportation [the euphemism for banishing convicts] was the penalty for the theft of a silver spoon and a gold watch"—such transportation would have saved Ward's life. Although expelling the dangerous classes was seen in 1745 as an alternative to the death penalty given to Ward in 1758, the process of transportation was so deadly that it was seen by some observers as little more than a delayed death sentence. For banished convicts had few defenders among the legal and political classes, and they would not contract themselves to masters until they arrived in the New World, meaning that ship captains were under no pressure to treat their cargo as anything other than expendable. As a result, the vessels transporting England's unwanted masses to the Americas were floating machines of death. In fact, Marcus Jernegan estimates that in the first half of the eighteenth century the mortality rate on ships stuffed full of convicts and indentured servants was "sometimes more than half." There can be little wonder, then, that the mainland colonies in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were wracked with serious problems regarding unruly workers. Arrested in England for petty crimes, rushed through shoddy trials (if at all), crammed aboard vile vessels, and sold off to the highest bidder upon landing in the New World, the colonies' banished convicts were understandably an ornery bunch.

Indeed, Britain's initial attempts to establish colonies in North America were fraught with complications. Along with the initially successful resistance of Native Americans to colonization, these challenges included failing crops, devastating plagues, murderous famines, terrible storms, disappearing convoys, and, perhaps most troublesome to many observers, ill-behaved settlers. Of this latter group, "the councilors quarreled and conspired against each other, the planters ran riot," and the less decorous rabble, dismissed by skeptics in the mother country as "the scum of England," proved themselves more than capable of sinning on multiple continents. Taken together, "all gave conclusive testimony to the awful truth of innate depravity." Thus Perry Miller describes some of the difficulties of establishing a settlement in Virginia in the first decades of the seventeenth century. The situation in William Penn's Philadelphia was no less difficult, for many of the European immigrants who came to the New World during its opening periods of conquest and settlement were indeed the scum of England. According to Abbot Smith, this migrating wave of scum included "rogues, vagabonds, whores, cheats, and rabble of all descriptions, raked from the gutter and kicked out of the country."

Many of those "kicked out" of England and shipped off to the colonies were convicts. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have shown that transportation as punishment dates back to the Beggars Act of 1597, which resulted in "the first known English felon [being] transported ... to Virginia in 1607." Banishing criminals to the colonies eventually became one of the major engines of colonization. In fact, A. Roger Ekirch argues that "convicts represented as much as a quarter of all British emigrants to colonial America during the eighteenth century." Smith's analysis of Old Bailey records from 1729 to 1770 suggests that "at least 70% of those convicted at the Old Bailey were sent to America," thus "bestowing upon America a total of 30,000 felons during the eighteenth century." The peopling of the mainland colonies with transported convicts was so ubiquitous a feature of England's early efforts at colonization that one London wit later quipped: "Beware the complicated cunning of that race whose Adam and Eve emigrated from Newgate," England's most feared prison. Likewise, in Daniel Defoe's The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders (1722), Moll's mother, who was transported to Virginia from Newgate, railed bitterly against "that cursed Place [Newgate prison] ... that half Peoples this Colony."

Benjamin Franklin was so appalled by the transportation system that in 1751 he wrote a brilliant satire on the subject. Representing a widely held belief in the colonies at the time, and writing under the pen name "Americanus," Franklin surmises that banished convicts are the cause of "Housebreaking, Shoplifting," and "Highway Robbing," and that their presence contributes directly to "a Son now and then corrupted and hang'd, a Daughter debauch'd and pox'd, a Wife stabb'd, a Husband's Throat cut, or a Child's Brains beat out with an Axe." Wondering how the colonies could return the favor, Franklin suggests, "Now all Commerce implies Returns: Justice requires them.... And Rattle-Snakes seem the most suitable Returns for the Human Serpents sent us by our Mother Country." In a venomous passage that must have left his readers howling with laughter, Franklin even specifies that the New World's rattlesnakes should be distributed throughout the parks of London, "but particularly in the Gardens of the Prime Ministers, the Lords of Trade and Members of Parliament."

While Franklin's position as a colonial subject left him little room in 1751 for engaging in anything other than satire, Bernard Mandeville was a celebrated (or notorious, depending on one's politics) essayist whose The Fable of the Bees (1714) had made a splash in England, persuading Mandeville that he could engage the subject of transportation from a position of some authority. Thus, in contrast to his fabulous Fable and Franklin's hilarious satire, Mandeville's Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn of 1725 contains pragmatic proposals for reforming England's botched criminal justice system, including the practice of transportation. Mandeville wrote in the tone of a disappointed investor, as he observed that "those that are forced to stay [in the colonies], do very little Service themselves, and spoil the other Slaves, teaching the Africans more Villainy and Mischief than ever they could have learn'd without the Examples and Instructions of such Europeans." Transportation does not enhance profits; rather, it schools otherwise good workers in the ways of mischief and villainy. By linking indentured servants and banished convicts to "the other Slaves," Mandeville demonstrates how, from the perspective of elite Londoners, indentured servants, banished convicts, and stolen Africans were politically alike: they were all slaves. But they were racially different slaves, as Mandeville indicates by italicizing the difference between Africans and Europeans. This racial difference is significant because it is the whiteness of European slaves that leads colonial masters "to treat them with less Severity than ... Blacks." Transportation therefore teaches African slaves the ill manners of Europe's losers and leads colonial masters to engage in a two-tiered disciplinary system where "Black" Africans are dealt with more harshly than white Europeans, hence destabilizing colonial law and order. To avoid this problem, Mandeville proposes a system of "Redemption" by which transported convicts and other "Vermin of Society" would be sent not to the New World's colonies but to "Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and other Places on the Coast of Barbary," where they would be traded as ransom for British sailors who had been captured on the high seas and enslaved by the "Mahometans." Thus illustrating the complexity of early eighteenth-century notions of race, class, religion, and nation, Mandeville's Enquiry proposed a bizarre—and not implemented—alternative to transportation.

Despite Franklin's scalding critique of the practice, and continuing regardless of Mandeville's proposals, dumping much of England's brawling class on the colonies served four interrelated purposes for the empire. First, selling convicts to the various companies exploring the Americas lowered the cost of maintaining England's prisons, including its feared Newgate, hence saving the British tax dollars that could be spent elsewhere—we may think of this as a budgetary benefit. Second, transportation enabled elites to rid themselves of troublesome agitators from the "dangerous classes," thus using claims of law and order to debilitate both working-class solidarity and potentially radical organizing among the downtrodden—we may think of this as a political benefit. Third, ridding England of its unwanted scum provided the cheap labor necessary for the initial waves of development in the worker-hungry colonies, thus enabling elites to at least hope for some return on their New World investments—we may think of this as an imperial benefit. And fourth, filling the colonies with transported convicts enabled England's champions of imperial dominion to discount the political claims of New World rebels, who, because of transportation, could be derided as ungrateful scum—we may think of this as a rhetorical benefit. For example, ever the champion of imperial law and order, Samuel Johnson allegedly blustered in 1769, when questioned about troublemakers in the colonies, "they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging." Considering the ways transportation produced these budgetary, political, imperial, and rhetorical benefits, and remembering the venom with which men like Johnson spoke of New World immigrants, it is little wonder that Franklin, Mandeville, and other critics of the system had no effect in London.

But transportation-supporting imperial elites were not the only ones who saw the Americas as a golden land of opportunity, as English, Irish, Scottish, and German peasants, paupers, and poverty-stricken workers were willing to ship out for the colonies, often as indentured servants. Eric Williams argues that "two-thirds of the immigrants to Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century were white servants," amounting on his calculations to 250,000, or "one-half of all English immigrants." Gary Nash has shown that between 1737 and 1754 as many as 40,000 Germans arrived, of whom roughly two-thirds were indentured servants; likewise, indentured servants made up a large proportion of the 30,000 Scots-Irish immigrants who arrived in Philadelphia between 1730 and 1750 to sign labor contracts that bound them to a master for anywhere from four to seven years, or until they could purchase their freedom. While the exact number of these new arrivals is hard to pinpoint, it is nonetheless clear that such immigrating indentured servants eventually replaced banished convicts as the New World's preferred form of forced labor.

Especially in the North, these indentured European servants were initially more popular than enslaved Africans. In fact, Ekirch notes that during this period indentured servants generally cost New World capitalists around £13, whereas slaves cost as much as £35 to £44. In addition to their cheaper cost, the terminal nature of their contracts and the relative ease of their eventual socialization made temporarily indentured Europeans less of a long-term management problem than permanently enslaved Africans. Hence, prior to the sweeping rhetorical claims of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and then the equally world-changing economic transformations triggered by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793—which, taken together, forever changed the young nation's perspectives on citizenship, race, and their relationship to servitude and slavery—many of the colonies' business elites preferred to rely for their laboring "scum" on indentured white servants. Given these circumstances, in which Europe was mingling massive amounts of expelled lawbreakers with indentured servants with stolen slaves and other desperate adventurers in an immense wilderness for the most part bereft of sophisticated political, juridical, and criminological institutions, it comes as no surprise to learn that the colonies were wracked with difficulties regarding crime and punishment. In fact, Jack Marietta and G. S. Rowe have compared homicide rates in Philadelphia and London from 1720 to 1780, concluding that the colonial city's rate was "two and a half times" that of the empire's capital. The Old World's sneering wits were therefore not wrong when they portrayed the New World as a brawling den of miscreants.

Production, Persuasion, and Punishment

To illustrate how the economic needs of elites for cheap labor collided with their political need to discipline the unruly masses, I turn to a story from Governor William Penn's Provincial Council. When Penn called the council to order on 16 November 1683 it faced two related issues: first, the question of how to punish Anthony Weston; second, the need to recognize the contracts drawn up between three local gentlemen and their indentured servants. These two issues were related because the punishment of Weston was meant to reinforce the authority of both the state and individual masters over the colony's misbehaving indentured servants, of whom Weston was an example. It is important to observe that the Minutes of the Provincial Council clearly differentiate those who contract themselves to a "Terme of Servts Servitude" from those who are "Negroe Slaves." We may conclude from this pattern of characterization that Weston, who is lumped in the former and not the latter class, was not an African stolen into slavery but a European either banished from the continent as punishment for some crime or contracted into servitude as a means of escaping Old World poverty. Whether he began his adventure as a banished convict or an emigrating pauper, Weston was not alone in serving his New World contract in dubious fashion, as records from the seventeenth century show colonial masters struggling to make their charges work hard and obey the law. Considering, then, that the New World was blanketed with what Michael Zuckerman has called "an aura of outcast infelicity," it comes as no surprise to learn that colonial masters believed violence offered a logical course of action against men like Weston. Indeed, John Winter, an agent brokering indentured servants in Maine, complained that on the whole his workers were "unrued [unruled] peepell" who were "stubborne" and "lasy." Remarking on the problem of how to encourage servants to work, Winter lamented that "if a faire way will not do it, beatings must."

In judging the case of Weston, Penn was confronting a problem shared by elites throughout the New World: like Winter in Maine, Penn in Philadelphia was faced with the problem of demonstrating his political authority to the colony's rapidly increasing laboring classes while, at the same time, finding a way to prod them toward acceptable levels of economic production—he was left balancing the available means of production, persuasion, and punishment. Penn's task was especially difficult in 1683, for Philadelphia received twenty-one ships full of immigrants in 1682 and another twenty-three ships in 1683, accounting for as many as 4,000 new souls in a colony that as late as 1690 had a population of but 8,000. This massive influx of bodies was in part the result of Penn's effective marketing skills, for he and his staff published advertising brochures in Europe written in German, English, and Welsh. In addition to portraying the New World as a land of golden opportunity, Penn's materials offered sweet deals on real estate, which was available via long-term installment plans that must have seemed heaven-sent to those Europeans accustomed to an Old World were the land was already too densely populated, too costly to purchase, and largely wrapped up in aristocratic inheritances. One result of Penn's inducements was that he was left presiding over a rapidly expanding colony consisting largely of recently arrived immigrants whose allegiance to the law in general and his authority in particular would have been tenuous at best, but whose labor power was nonetheless desperately needed. As Zuckerman observes, these immigrants embodied a strange combination of "indispensability," for their bodies were useful commodities, and "expendability," for their bodies could be broken for committing even the most trifling of crimes. Penn's task, then, was to manage this curious scenario, to find a way, sometimes via the use of corporeal or capital punishment, to make the expendable act indispensably.


Excerpted from EXECUTING DEMOCRACY by Stephen John Hartnett Copyright © 2010 by Stephen John Hartnett. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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