Law, Force, and Resistance to Disorder in Herman Melville's Billy Budd

20 Pages Posted: 11 Apr 2011

Date Written: 2010


The Herman Melville law and literature classic, Billy Budd, Sailor (an inside narrative), illustrates the choice between force and law as means by which to achieve public order in a community. In that story, Captain Edward Fairfax "Starry" Vere believes the law leads inexorably to the determination that the sailor Billy Budd must be tried and executed for causing the death of the ship’s master-at-arms, John Claggart. Like other commentators - including Richard Weisberg and, more recently, Daniel J. Solove - I conclude that, within the context of the story, the law did not, in fact, dictate such a determination. Captain Vere had the discretion, in the circumstances, to choose between following the path of law or not. Relying upon the facts and law as Melville gives them in the story, I suggest an explanation for Vere’s actions, if not necessarily a justification: Vere, by virtue of character and temperament, had a need for order in the midst of the creeping anxiety that disorder was near at hand. Vere’s aversion to disorder both private and public precipitated his reliance upon force, rather than law, to prevent the disruption he feared might result from a failure to punish Billy for the death of the master-at-arms. This disruption may be seen as proxy for the larger currents of disorder that may disturb nearly any community. And though his decision to use force may have led to a return to the status quo condition of order on board the H.M.S. Bellipotent, the long-term impact of Vere’s decision was not quite so clear. There are lessons to be drawn from that decision about the value of adherence to the rule of law, even when such adherence may not appear to be expedient.

Keywords: law, order, force

Suggested Citation

Friedman, Lawrence, Law, Force, and Resistance to Disorder in Herman Melville's Billy Budd (2010). Thomas Jefferson Law Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2010, Available at SSRN:

Lawrence Friedman (Contact Author)

New England Law | Boston ( email )

154 Stuart Street
Boston, MA 02116
United States
617-451-0010 (Phone)

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