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Executing democracy

capital punishment and the making of America, 1683–1807

Stephen John Hartnett

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: Michigan State University Press

Contents

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pp. v-vi

Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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Preface

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pp. ix-xv

After a rough fifteen years of getting into, out of, and back into trouble while agitating for revolution across the European continent, Thomas Paine returned to America in 1802. By then his hell-fire radicalism had faded out of fashion, his drinking had become epic, and his purportedly atheistic rantings in Age of Reason had turned many in the United States against the man whose polemics had stirred them to heroic efforts. The Federalist press hounded Paine as a sinner and ...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xvii-xxii

The idea for this book was first hatched on a windswept and hard-raining night in the spring of 1999, when I found myself standing with thousands of other death penalty abolitionists outside California’s San Quentin Prison, where we were protesting the execution that was scheduled to occur at midnight. On that and too many other occasions, I found myself disappointed in the quality of arguments being offered both in favor of and against the death penalty, and so it struck ...

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

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pp. 1-40

Thus the news from Andrew Bradford’s American Weekly Mercury on 7 July 1737. The second regularly published newspaper in the New World and the most important newspaper in Philadelphia at the time, the American Weekly Mercury offers a window into the complicated choices of colonial life. The block of text quoted above appears on page ...

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

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pp. 41-78

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 ...

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

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pp. 79-121

Historians have long recognized a paradox within the American Revolution: while the leaders of the uprising marshaled the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality to discredit a (supposedly) tyrannical king and to rally the masses to the cause of independence, they maintained a vision of political leadership that was more aristocratic than republican. As Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris note, the Revolution’s leaders were “elitist, prosperous, and ...

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

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pp. 123-160

I argued in chapter 2 that post-Revolutionary America experienced a backlash against too-damned-much-democracy: revolutionary impulses needed to be curtailed, so elites thought, to prevent the young nation from succumbing to what founding father Benjamin Rush diagnosed as the disease of “anarchia” and from sliding into what the Connecticut Wits portrayed in The Anarchiad as a coming age of democracy run wild. Part of this backlash against those who took the words ...

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

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pp. 161-210

Delivering a July Fourth oration in Boston in 1785, John Gardiner, an Episcopal minister and “perhaps Boston’s most distinguished man of letters,” offered this observation on the relationships among the different forms of government and their corresponding stages of Enlightenment: ...

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Conclusion: THe Haning of John M'Kean and the Perils of Sinning in an Age of Reason

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pp. 211-218

A hard-drinking Irishman who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1783, John M’Kean was a notorious wife beater. He apparently hit his wife daily, sometimes for no reason, sometimes for trifling reasons, sometimes just because he was drunk and was in the habit. One wonders what his neighbors were doing during these constant batterings; nonetheless, when he finally killed his wife and was hanged for it, one observer ventured that “the safety of society requires it.” But it ...

Notes

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pp. 219-273

Bibliography

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pp. 275-302

Index

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pp. 303-331


E-ISBN-13: 9781609172077
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870138690

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- 1783-1865.
  • Capital punishment -- United States -- History.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
  • Debates and debating -- United States -- History.
  • Crime -- United States -- History.
  • United States -- History -- Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775.
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