Tracing the Founders’ Perspectives on the Death Penalty and the Eighth Amendment to Move Toward a Future Without Capital Punishment
George C. Chipev, J.D. Candidate
Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment. By John D. Bessler+. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2012. Pp. 456. $39.95
John D. Bessler’s fourth book, Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, presents a careful, well-researched study of the death penalty in American history. The book demonstrates that the Founding Fathers held conflicting and evolving views about the death penalty, and did not necessarily support its use. Bessler, admirably, does not take a detached approach in Cruel & Unusual. As he explains, the book “thoroughly examines the Eighth Amendment’s history, meaning, and purpose, arguing that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause should be read to bar executions” and that its meaning is not tied to “eighteenth-century mores.” Bessler’s subjective approach augments the effect of his compelling historical indictment of capital punishment, particularly as he seeks to change readers’ understanding of punishment and penal reform in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.