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Revisiting Beccaria’s Vision: The Enlightenment, America’s Death Penalty, and the Abolition Movement

134 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2011  

John D. D. Bessler

University of Baltimore - School of Law; Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: Fall 2009


In 1764, Cesare Beccaria, a 26-year-old Italian criminologist, penned On Crimes and Punishments. That treatise spoke out against torture and made the first comprehensive argument against state-sanctioned executions. As we near the 250th anniversary of its publication, law professor John Bessler provides a comprehensive review of the abolition movement from before Beccaria's time to the present. Bessler reviews Beccaria's substantial influence on Enlightenment thinkers and on America's Founding Fathers in particular. The Article also provides an extensive review of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and then contrasts it with the trend in international law towards the death penalty's abolition. It then discusses the current state of the death penalty in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Baze v. Rees and concludes that there is every reason to believe that America's death penalty may finally be in its death throes.

Keywords: death penalty, abolition, abolitionist movement, reform, Cesare Beccaria, Enlightenment, torture, execution, capital punishment, international, internet,history,eighth amendment,lethal injection,habeas corpus, Guantanamo detainees,court,cruel & unusual, retentionist, crimes, sentencing, criminology

JEL Classification: K14, K39, K49, H56

Suggested Citation

Bessler, John D. mname, Revisiting Beccaria’s Vision: The Enlightenment, America’s Death Penalty, and the Abolition Movement (Fall 2009). Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 195-328, Fall 2009. Available at SSRN:

John D. Bessler (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore - School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States
4108374690 (Phone)
4108374450 (Fax)


Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States


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