Synopses & Reviews
The death penalty arouses our passions as does few other issues. Some view taking another person's life as just and reasonable punishment while others see it as an inhumane and barbaric act. But the intensity of feeling that capital punishment provokes often obscures its long and varied history in this country.
Now, for the first time, we have a comprehensive history of the death penalty in the United States. Law professor Stuart Banner tells the story of how, over four centuries, dramatic changes have taken place in the ways capital punishment has been administered and experienced. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the penalty was standard for a laundry list of crimes--from adultery to murder, from arson to stealing horses. Hangings were public events, staged before audiences numbering in the thousands, attended by women and men, young and old, black and white alike. Early on, the gruesome spectacle had explicitly religious purposes--an event replete with sermons, confessions, and last minute penitence--to promote the salvation of both the condemned and the crowd. Through the nineteenth century, the execution became desacralized, increasingly secular and private, in response to changing mores. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, ironically, as it has become a quiet, sanitary, technological procedure, the death penalty is as divisive as ever.
By recreating what it was like to be the condemned, the executioner, and the spectator, Banner moves beyond the debates, to give us an unprecedented understanding of capital punishment's many meanings. As nearly four thousand inmates are now on death row, and almost one hundred are currently being executed each year, the furious debate is unlikely to diminish. The Death Penalty is invaluable in understanding the American way of the ultimate punishment.
Stuart Banner's The Death Penalty is a splendidly objective achievement. Delightfully written, free of academic pretense, liberally sprinkled with apt references from contemporary sources, the book exhaustively explores the multifaceted evolution of America's penal practices. Jane Henderson - St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Stuart Banner aptly illustrates in The Death Penalty, like the nation, the death penalty has changed with the times...Banner's account spotlights a number of interesting trends in American history...Mostly evenhanded in the tour he provides through the history of the death penalty and its role in and reflection of American society, he has managed to provide an accessible look at what is a profoundly controversial and complicated subject. R. C. Cottrell - Choice
As an historical account of capital punishment in America, the book is unmatched...The Death Penalty: An American History is a remarkable achievement. There should be little doubt that it rightfully belongs alongside the very best scholarship ever written on the controversial subject. Elsbeth Bothe - Baltimore Sun
Despite the gruesome nature of the book's topic, it is difficult to stop reading. Banner's research is fascinating, his writing style compelling. Given the emotional nature of the subject (few people known to me are wishy-washy about whether the death penalty is moral or immoral), Banner walks the line of neutrality skillfully, without seeming evasive. Hugo Adam Bedau - Boston Review
A masterful book. This is a long overdue account which fills a huge gap in our understanding of America's long and complex relationship to state killing. With meticulous scholarship and lucid prose, Banner has written a compelling account of the place of capital punishment in our society. It sets the standard for all future scholarship on the history of the death penalty in America. Austin Sarat, author of < i=""> When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition <>
The Death Penalty, a study we have badly needed, is the first history of the nation's engagement--as well as its disengagement--with capital punishment from the country's earliest days to the present. With a sure grasp of the constitutional issues, Stuart Banner greatly advances a conversation at last underway about the rightness of putting people to death for having inflicted a death. Banner's greatest and most useful feat is remaining dispassionate on a subject that he cares deeply about--as do a growing number of his fellow Americans. William S. McFeely, author of < i=""> Proximity to Death <>
Banner's book is a superbly detailed and textured social history of a subject too often treated in legal abstractions. It demonstrates how capital punishment has gnawed at the conscience and imagination of Americans, and how it has challenged their efforts to define themselves culturally, politically, and racially. Robert Weisberg, Stanford Law School
The Death Penalty is certain to be the definitive account of the American experience with capital punishment, from its beginnings in the seventeenth century, to the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001. This is a first rate piece of scholarship: well written, deeply researched, fascinating to read, and full of insights and good common sense. It is, in my view, one of the finest books to deal with this troubled and troubling subject. Historical and legal scholarship owe a debt of gratitude to Stuart Banner. Lawrence Friedman, Stanford Law School
The Death Penalty, a study we have badly needed, is the first history of the nation's engagement--as well as its disengagement--with capital punishment from the country's earliestdays to the present. With a sure grasp of the constitutional issues, Stuart Banner greatly advances a conversation at last underway about the rightness of putting people to death for having inflicted a death. Banner's greatest and mostuseful feat is remaining dispassionate on a subject that he cares deeply about--as do a growing number of his fellow Americans.
The Death Penalty beautifully explains the changing paths traveled by supporters and opponents of capital punishment over the years. It explores a subject of enormous symbolic importance to Americans today, linking our views about the death penalty to our larger concerns about crime. David Oshinsky, author of < i=""> " Worse Than Slavery " : Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice <>
[Banner] deftly balances history and politics, crafting a book that will be valuable to anyone interested in knowing more about capital punishment, no matter what his or her views are on the ethical issues surrounding the topic. David Pitt
In this well-researched and clear account...Banner charts how and why this country went from having one of the world's mildest punitive systems to one of its harshest. Booklist
Stuart Banner's book is fine and balanced and important. His lucid history of this grim subject is scrupulously accurate...It is refreshingly free of the tendentiousness and the sensationalism that this subject invites. Publishers Weekly
[The] contrast between the past and the present can now be seen with great clarity thanks to...Stuart Banner and his comprehensive book, The Death Penalty...American historians have been slow to undertake anything like a full-scale study of the subject...Banner's book does much to fill [the gaps]. His book is an important and comprehensive...treatment of the topic. Richard A. Posner - New Republic
Stuart Banner's The Death Penalty is a tour de force, remarkable for its neutrality as it traces the ways in which the death penalty has been applied, and for what kinds of crimes, from the Colonial era to the present. Banner...writes like a historian who believes perspective is best gained by dispassionately setting out what happened and letting everyone come to his or her own conclusions. I think, in this book, that works wonderfully. On a subject in which emotions run so high, it seems awfully useful to have a dispassionate voice. After all, if Banner allowed his own feelings on the death penalty--pro, con or somewhere in the middle--to be known, the book easily could be dismissed as a diatribe. He doesn't, and it can't. Steve Weinberg - Legal Times
Law professor Banner...offers a persuasive examination of the evolution of capital punishment from Colonial times onward. He makes clear that the death penalty has possessed generally consistent support from the US populace, although changes in the sensibilities of juries, executioners, legal theoreticians, and judges have occurred...Highly recommended. Judith Neuman Beck - San Jose Mercury News
"For centuries," Stuart Banner tells us, "Americans had been proud to possess a criminal-justice system that made less use of the death penalty than just about any other place on the globe, including the countries of western Europe." But no longer. Now we possess "one of the harshest criminal codes in the world." The Death Penalty helps explain that turnaround, but only in the course of a complicated story in which different factors emerge at different times to play often unforeseeable roles...[This is a] superbly told history. Steven Martinovich - Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
Stuart Banner's lucid, richly researched book brings us, for the first time, a comprehensive history of American capital punishment from colonial times to the present. He describes the practices that characterized the institution at different periods, elucidates their ritual purposes and social meanings, and identifies the forces that led to their transformation. The book's well-ordered narrative is interspersed with individual case histories, that give flesh and blood to the account. Paul Rosenberg - Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
[An] informative, even-handed, chillingly fascinating account of why and how the U.S. government and many state governments decided to sponsor executions of criminals--even though innocent defendants might die, too. David Garland - Times Literary Supplement
Here, for the first time, we have a comprehensive account of the death penalty in the United States. Stuart Banner tells the story of dramatic changes, over four centuries, in the ways capital punishment has been administered and experienced. Banner moves beyond the debates to give us an unprecedented understanding of America's ultimate punishment.
Co-Winner, 2002 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History, Langum Charitable Trust
Honorable Mention, 2002 Association of American Publishers PSP Award, Law Category
About the Author
Stuart Banner is Norman Abrams Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles.
UCLA School of Law
Table of Contents
- 1. Terror, Blood, and Repentance
- 2. Hanging Day
- 3. Degrees of Death
- 4. The Origins of Opposition
- 5. Northern Reform, Southern Retention
- 6. Into the Jail Yard
- 7. Technological Cures
- 8. Decline
- 9. To the Supreme Court
- 10. Resurrection
- Appendix: Counting Executions