Jefferson Was Not Opposed to the Death Penalty—But He Was Humane

And whereas the reformation of offenders, tho' an object worthy the attention of the laws, is not effected at all by capital punishments, which exterminate instead of reforming, and should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens, which also weaken the state by cutting off so many who, if reformed, might be restored sound members to society, who, even under a course of correction, might be rendered useful in various labors for the public, and would be living and long continued spectacles to deter others from committing the like offences.

Thomas Jefferson
Bill for Apportioning Crimes and Punishments, 1778

Thomas Jefferson was not opposed to the death penalty. He believed that a citizen used up his "social contract" rights to life under two conditions: heinous, aggravated murder, and treason against one's country. After writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson returned to Virginia, where he was named to a committee to revise the entire law code of the former British colony to bring it into accord with the principles of a Republic, and to harmonize Virginia law with the best practices of the Enlightenment. Jefferson later said it was the single hardest labor of his life.

When he began, there were 39 capital crimes in Virginia, including the stealing of a cabbage. By the time he finished, the number of capital crimes had been reduced to two: heinous, aggravated murder, and treason against the state. Unfortunately, the Virginia House of Delegates did not share Jefferson’s enlightened views. They refused to pass any reform law that did not retain horse stealing as a death-penalty crime.

Jefferson, who was one of the best-read men of his time, was a student of the Italian humanist Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), who proposed a range of penal reforms. Beccaria argued that it is not in the interest of the state to seek vengeance on behalf of the victims of crime and that the administration of cruel and unusual punishments put the state at a moral disadvantage. The state’s only true interest, he argued, was maintaining the social order.The just state should seek only to restore order, sequester dangerous individuals, and--if possible--rehabilitate them.

Jefferson was naturally a gentle and pacific man. He was clearly influenced (as his prose above indicates) by the humane principles of Beccaria. In the name of humanity and efficient law enforcement, he removed virtually all of the capital crimes from the Virginia code, keeping only the residual two--for crimes he believed so grave that they extinguished a perpetrator's right to life itself.

The botched execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona this week would almost certainly trouble Jefferson. He believed that whatever the state does should be done as humanely and quietly as possible. Still, the method of capital punishment in his time was hanging, by which standard the event in Arizona was arguably humane. Public hangings were still a spectator sport throughout much of the "enlightened" world in Jefferson's time (1743-1826).

To read the full text of Jefferson's proposed penal code for Virginia, click here.

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