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[77]

Capital punishment (1855)

Plea before a Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature, March 16, 1855.

I have not been able, Mr. Chairman, to attend any of the hearings of this Committee, and therefore I cannot be said to know accurately the ground taken by those who have supported the proposition that the gallows should be retained; but I presume I know it in general, and therefore, a general reply will not wander far from the points which the committee would like to have treated. I have always found that before the House of Representatives this subject had, in fact, but two points of difficulty, and, indeed, one was of far more importance to the committee than the other. The first point is, the authority for capital punishment; and the second, the necessity or expediency of preserving it. I will say a few words on both.

In the first place, Mr. Chairman, what is the object of all punishment, in a civil community? Of course, it is not to revenge any act committed. The idea of revenge is to be separated from the idea of punishment, when we speak of capital punishment, or any other punishment, in civil society. Neither can it be said that punishment is the penalty of sin, properly speaking; that is sin in the eye of God, where an individual — a conscious, responsible individual — commits a wrong act, with a wrong motive. Society has nothing to do with motive; society punishes acts. One man, for instance, may commit

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