John Bessler recently took a break from his hectic schedule to participate in a Q&A about his latest book, The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution. It's just been published by Carolina Academic Press.
Q. You've written extensively about capital punishment over the years. What led you to write The Birth of American Law.
A. I've been writing about the death penalty for more than 20 years now. My prior book, Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders' Eighth Amendment (2012), traces the history of the U.S. Constitution's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution (2014) tells the whole story of how the Italian Enlightenment influenced the American Revolution and, in particular, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I wrote the book, which highlights, among other things, how capital punishment was curtailed in early American law, because there is a myth that the Founding Fathers were gung-ho about the death penalty. In fact, the historical record shows that the founders were highly ambivalent about executions and greatly admired the writings of Cesare Beccaria, an Italian philosopher who opposed capital punishment.
Q. Who was Cesare Beccaria?
A. Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) lived in Milan, one of the centers of the Italian Enlightenment. He wrote a book in Italian in 1764 that was later translated into English in 1767 as On Crimes and Punishments. The book was very popular in Europe and in colonial America, and it was avidly read by leading founders such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adams quoted the book at the Boston Massacre trial and Jefferson copied numerous passages of it into his commonplace book and regularly recommended it to others. Beccaria's ideas on crimes and punishments were widely discussed in America's founding era and they shaped early American constitutions and laws.
Q. How did it come to be that an intellectual of the Italian Enlightenment had an impact on American's Founding Fathers?
A. The trans-Atlantic book trade brought many new ideas to the New World. Beccaria, like Montesquieu, believed that any punishment that goes beyond what is absolutely necessary is "tyrannical." A number of Italians, including a botanist from Milan who was in Beccaria's social circle, also came to America during the founding era, so ideas were conveyed in that way, too. Beccaria wrote a lot about cruelty, and his ideas shaped the founders as they wrestled with what should be considered to be cruel. The Eighth Amendment was ratified in the decades after Beccaria's book became so popular.
Q. It sounds as though Beccaria's ideas continue to have currency today. We're still debating the death penalty; We're seeing greater use of restorative justice.
A. Criminologists and legal historians still read Beccaria's book, but most Americans -- indeed, most lawyers -- know little if anything about him and his ideas. My book, a comprehensive look at Beccaria's influence, attempts to correct that. In the founding era, the death penalty was the mandatory, or usual, punishment for certain crimes. Today, however, the use of life-without-parole sentences far eclipses the use of executions. While convicted murderers are now regularly punished with LWOP sentences, death sentences and executions have become unusual or rare. Indeed, non-lethal corporal punishments have already long been abandoned in the U.S. penal system, though executions continue in a few states, mostly in the South.
Q. What else might tempt the reader to pick up The Birth of American Law.
A. The book is a fascinating story about how someone who never came to America had a major impact on the development of American law. His ideas led to the abandonment of England's "Bloody Code" and to the creation of the penitentiary system. The fact that the Founding Fathers admired the writings of a death penalty opponent is also quite interesting.
Thanks to John Bessler for taking the time to visit.
Earlier coverage of John Bessler's Birth of American Law begins at the link.