The Great Divergence: The Death Penalty in the United States and the Failure of Abolition in Transatlantic Perspective

Moshik Temkin

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

July 21, 2015

HKS Working Paper No. 15-037

This essay analyzes the persistence of the death penalty in the United States – a topic that has long been the subject of debate among legal scholars, social scientists, and historians. Adopting a comparative framework by focusing on the United States and France (the last Western European country to abolish the death penalty), this essay argues that the best explanation for the divergence in the practice of the death penalty between the two countries can be found in the very different histories, meanings, and practical applications of death penalty abolitionism. Whereas abolition in France (as elsewhere in Europe) was a political, top-down process, framed in normative terms, decided at the national level, and enshrined in supranational treaties, the abolitionist cause in the United States has been primarily legal, procedural, and decentralized. This divergence should also be understood in the context of a broader divide – whereas in Europe, human rights have been a binding principle for policymaking and political belonging, in the United States human rights are applied for the wider world but not for domestic affairs. The essay concludes with implications for thinking about the relationship between the transatlantic history of abolition and its prospects in the United States, arguing that abolitionism should be understood, and proceed, in terms that are political and normative rather than legal and procedural.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 67

Keywords: Death Penalty, United States, France, Multi-National, Abolitionism

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Date posted: September 18, 2015  

Suggested Citation

Temkin, Moshik, The Great Divergence: The Death Penalty in the United States and the Failure of Abolition in Transatlantic Perspective (July 21, 2015). HKS Working Paper No. 15-037. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2662109 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2662109

Contact Information

Moshik Temkin (Contact Author)
Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )
79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
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