Early Questions About the Death Penalty
Those who did not support the death penalty found support in the writings of European theorists Montesquieu, Voltaire and Bentham, and English Quakers John Bellers and John Howard. However, it was Cesare Beccaria's 1767 essay, On Crimes and Punishment, that had an especially strong impact throughout the world. In the essay, Beccaria theorized that there was no justification for the state's taking of a life. The essay gave abolitionists an authoritative voice and renewed energy, one result of which was the abolition of the death penalty in Austria and Tuscany. (Schabas 1997)
American intellectuals as well were influenced by Beccaria. The first attempted reforms of the death penalty in the U.S. occurred when Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to revise Virginia's death penalty laws. The bill proposed that capital punishment be used only for the crimes of murder and treason. It was defeated by only one vote.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, challenged the belief that the death penalty served as a deterrent. In fact, Rush was an early believer in the "brutalization effect." He held that having a death penalty actually increased criminal conduct. Rush gained the support of Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia Attorney General William Bradford. Bradford, who would later become the U.S. Attorney General, believed that the death penalty should be retained, but that it was not a deterrent to certain crimes. He subsequently led Pennsylvania to become the first state to consider degrees of murder based on culpability. In 1794, Pennsylvania repealed the death penalty for all offenses except first degree murder. (Bohm, 1999; Randa, 1997; and Schabas, 1997)