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Towards a Legal History of American Criminal Theory:
Culture and Doctrine from Blackstone to the Model Penal Code

143 Pages Posted: 22 Nov 2002  

Gerald Leonard

Boston University School of Law


Many writers in recent decades have objected to the utilitarian aspects of substantive criminal law that cannot be squared with modern, retributivist versions of criminal justice. One particular target of the retributivists has been the use of strict liability, especially as it is applied in statutory rape cases. This article is an effort, not to take sides between utilitarians and retributivists, but to historicize the ideas and assumptions on all sides of the debates in criminal law, including the debate about strict liability in statutory rape.

Discovering very little historical work on the subject, I offer the first general intellectual history of the theory of substantive criminal law in America from the late 18th century to the publication of the Model Penal Code in 1962. Along the way, the article provides a close case study of the origins of strict liability in the statutory rape cases. This history suggests, first of all, that the stark modern distinctions between subjective and objective liability and between retributivism and utilitarianism were of little salience before the 20th century. Instead, the real focus of criminal theory in that time was the post-Enlightenment goal of "prevention" of distinctively "public" wrongs, as opposed to the "private" wrongs that were thought not to implicate public policy. Moreover, a newly explicit attention to the regulatory needs of a society enmeshed in the market and industrialization reinforced this public perspective across the 19th century. But concern with moral justice to the individual accused was never absent and became especially salient at particular historical moments. It reached a particularly low ebb during the Progressive era when radical criminal reformers attempted virtually to purge criminal law of its moral dimension, substituting an entirely scientific model of "treatment" for the traditional model of punishment. This radicalism, however, ultimately prompted an equally radical reaction, which gave retributivism's focus on moral justice to the individual a preeminence it had never before enjoyed. The Model Penal Code, finally, exhibited both the strong, residual influence of the Progressive reformers and the emerging, critical power of the retributivists.

At the heart of this analysis is a close examination of the statutory rape cases in the late 19th century. Viewed in light of the Victorian ideology of chastity, the cases and commentary provide a case study of judicial negotiation between the criminal-law values of private and public justice. The judges persistently gave pride of place to a public justice that, in the particular historical context of Victorian America, deployed the ideology of chastity and stringent demands on the citizenry's public character to justify the rule of strict liability in the sex cases. But, at the same time, they often worked to assimilate the results to at least some measure of private, moral justice. The production of doctrine in these cases thus provides a concrete lesson in the historical contingency and flexibility of criminal doctrine and the necessity of understanding the interactions of both the larger cultural context in which the courts operate and the internal imperatives of criminal law as a discipline.

Keywords: substantive criminal law, criminal law, utilitarian, retributivist, strict liability, intellectual history, public wrongs, Model Penal Code, private and public justice, statutory rape, moral justice, criminal reformers, criminal theory, Victorian America

Suggested Citation

Leonard, Gerald, Towards a Legal History of American Criminal Theory: Culture and Doctrine from Blackstone to the Model Penal Code. Buffalo Criminal Law Review, Vol. 6, No. 2. Available at SSRN: or

Gerald Leonard (Contact Author)

Boston University School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
617-353-3138 (Phone)
617-353-3077 (Fax)

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