Revolutionary Criminal Punishments: Treason, Mercy, and the American Revolution

American Journal of Legal History, Forthcoming

31 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2021 Last revised: 6 Jul 2021

Date Written: January 20, 2021

Abstract

This Article focuses on the exceptional mildness of criminal punishments for alleged traitors in the wake of the American Revolution. American leaders were disinclined to inflict the death penalty on loyalists who supported British rule in the revolutionary war or on insurgents in the Shays, Whiskey, and Fries rebellions shortly after independence. In fact, the Founding Fathers and other first-generation officials commonly showed remarkable mercy. Numerous “traitors” readily rehabilitated themselves by recognizing their faults, swearing an oath of allegiance to the new American republic, and promising to refrain from further wrongdoing. These revolutionary punishments were a striking prefiguration of modern penal practices: guilty pleas, probation sentences, and rehabilitation policies aiming to reintegrate wrongdoers into society. While American revolutionary punishments comprised stark racial inequities and did not constitute a lost utopia, they were particularly mild for the period. In contrast, the contemporary French Revolution led to wide-scale executions of purported traitors. Besides shedding light on historic events that criminal justice scholars have neglected, the Article’s findings are relevant to ongoing debates about American exceptionalism and the peculiar harshness of modern American justice, including originalist and non-originalist interpretations of the Eighth Amendment. The rise of mass incarceration in the United States and its retention of the death penalty can foster cultural essentialism about how American culture traditionally lacks humanistic sensibilities. In reality, the revolutionary criminal punishments of the late eighteenth century demonstrate how America once was a trailblazer in embracing humane conceptions of justice.

Keywords: American Revolution, Death Penalty, Mass Incarceration, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Criminal Punishment, Criminology, Dignity, International Human Rights, Race, Eighth Amendment, United States, France, Comparative Law, War, Legal History, Enlightenment, French Revolution, Loyalists, Treason

Suggested Citation

Jouet, Mugambi, Revolutionary Criminal Punishments: Treason, Mercy, and the American Revolution (January 20, 2021). American Journal of Legal History, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3770353 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3770353

Mugambi Jouet (Contact Author)

McGill Faculty of Law ( email )

3644 Peel Street
Montreal H3A 1W9, Quebec
Canada

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.mcgill.ca/law/about/profs/jouet-mugambi

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Downloads
46
Abstract Views
415
PlumX Metrics