JOHN CYRIL BARTON, Literary Executions: Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820-1925 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2014), pp. 330.

PAUL CHRISTIAN JONES, Against the Gallows: Antebellum American Writers and the Movement to Abolish Capital Punishment (Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2011), pp. 230.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies 60.4



From a Western European perspective, the US American death penalty in the twenty-first century often stands as the icon of a penal system characterized by judicial error, racial bias, capitalist exploitation and, not least, by an almost medieval inhumanity—a fatal backwardness that marks America’s difference from Western Europe. This perspective easily occludes that in the nineteenth century, the US was at the forefront of penal reform and the abolition of the death penalty. In fact, the state of Pennsylvania was the first to introduce murder in two degrees, and many other states—in contrast to Western European nations— drastically reduced the number of capital crimes on their statutes; the antebellum period, moreover, saw a privatization of executions throughout the American northeast and a sustained campaign for the abolition of capital punishment led by state and national societies.

            Historians such as Louis P. Masur, Stuart Banner, Philip English Mackey, and Alan Rogers have documented the activities of this “other” abolitionist movement in the age of reform, yet the role that an imaginative literature played within the battle against capital punishment has been largely overlooked. With Against the Gallows: Antebellum Writers and the Movement to Abolish Capital Punishment and Literary Executions: Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820-1925, Paul Christian Jones and John Cyril Barton, who have both been publishing on the issue in journals throughout the 2000s, have now offered the first monographs to address this neglected body of texts. Yet Jones’s and Barton’s takes on how literature participates in the debate about the death penalty are very different, and in that sense, Against the Gallows and Literary Executions complement each other well and provide us with a broad understanding of the engagement of literary writing and writers in the discourse about capital punishment in the antebellum period and beyond.

            Jones, who published his study in 2011, can be said to have opened up the investigation of nineteenth-century death penalty texts by focusing on a great variety of genres and authors of the 1840s and 1850s—building on Barton’s 2006 call to “understand[…] the American Renaissance in terms of that ‘other’ abolitionist movement.”[1]Against the Gallows focuses on explicit anti-gallows writing and seeks to reconstruct “various cases of intriguing cooperation between America’s literary figures […] and the reformers, politicians, clergymen, and periodical editors who were attempting to end the practice of capital punishment in the nation” (15). Jones employs a refreshingly broad notion of “literary figures,” including in his inquiry writers of popular poetry, of Newgate crime novels, or of women’s popular fiction, and thus elucidates “the connections between antebellum reform and America’s canonical and popular literature” (17).

His account of direct connections and cooperations between reform movement and literary writing is most convincing in his chapters on anti-gallows poetry and Whitman’s reformist and literary activities. In the early 1840s, John O’Sullivan, best known for his later coinage of the term “Manifest Destiny,” but one of the most vocal anti-gallows legislators and activists in New York State, used his own paper, the Democratic Review, as a forum to denounce English poet William Wordsworth for his publication of a series of pro-gallows sonnets. At the same time, he published John Greenleaf Whittier’s two anti-gallows poems, “Lines” and “The Human Sacrifice,” and promoted Whittier as the ideal American poet who put his poetry in the service of progressive causes. O’Sullivan demanded the same of other writers and, apart from exploiting anti-English sentiment in order to forge a national American literature, had a part in triggering the boom of anti-gallows poetry of the early 1840s. Walt Whitman, then, united the figure of the activist reformer and the writer of reform literature: while publishing articles against the death penalty in the Brooklyn Eagle and voicing his anti-death penalty stance in a number of editorials, Whitman also wrote more literary pieces questioning the legitimacy of capital punishment, for instance his brilliant and scathing “A Dialogue” and “Revenge and Requital.” Jones then also shows how Whitman’s anti-gallows politics entered Leaves of Grass. 

Against the Gallows offers an overview of the wealth of imaginative writing in opposition to the death penalty—its different arguments, authors, and genres. Jones places anti-gallows writing within the broader context of reform writing of the antebellum period, and thus within a body of work that has often been characterized as employing or, more negatively, exploiting sentimentalism in order to effectively carry its socio-political message. Hence, his study’s central aesthetic inquiry concerns the uses of sympathy and sentimentalism in anti-gallows texts. Fostering the reader’s sympathetic feeling towards the condemned was seen as “an essential step toward ending the death penalty in the United States” (21), as Jones demonstrates through his analyses of Newgate novels, Whitman’s writings, and E.D.E.N. Southward’s novels The Lost Heiress (1853) and The Hidden Hand (1859). Moreover, these fictional writings also allowed the reader to imagine a “sympathetic State” (21) and “sympathy in justice” (22). The ideal state and the ideal law that Americans were to envision and to strive for were thus humanized; imaginative literature worked against the distance that citizens began to feel to these institutions in a growing nation, and against a dispersion of responsibility in an increasingly abstract penal system.

            If Jones approaches literary texts about the death penalty from the perspective of antebellum reform writing and its uses of sentimentalism, Barton does so from a perspective on the interconnections of law and literature. Literary Executions reads literary texts against a great number of other documents—studies pertaining to criminal law, legal documents, trial transcripts, treatises, and newspaper and journal articles. Broadening Jones’s historical focus by including the 1820s and ending with a chapter on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 An American Tragedy, Barton carefully shows what kind of intervention each literary engagement with the death penalty made at a given historical moment, what arguments it responded to, integrated, and developed, which tropes and narratives it employed—in other words: how these works participated in and shaped the larger public debate, or the “cultural rhetoric of capital punishment” (Introduction). Given this focus on the ways in which literature was part of an open political debate—rather than part of a progressive reform movement—Barton primarily focuses on the novel and its potential dialogicity. Like Jones, he reads both popular and canonical texts, but by virtue of his different approach, Barton can also focus on texts that do not function straightforwardly as vehicles of reform but that display ambivalence about the legitimacy and expediency of the death penalty, or even argue in favor of it.

Reading “law as literature as well as law in literature” and “literature against law” by way of cross-examinations, Barton is interested in one “legal” and one “literary” question in particular: how do texts revolving around the death penalty construct the citizen-subject vis-à-vis the state in nineteenth- and early twentieth- century America? And how do the legalistic and penal procedures of capital punishment structure literary texts? Barton reads the execution as the cultural locus which for many writers dramatized “the confrontation between the citizen-subject and sovereign authority in its starkest terms” (5). As David Garland has recently pointed out, the death penalty in the American context is not and has never been “a top-down display of might, imposed by an all-powerful state authority that monopolizes violence and reserves to itself the power to kill.”[2] Instead, in a republic, it is sovereign citizens who put a citizen to death. Barton shows the texts staging this tension: the literary scene of execution allows the citizen-reader to inhabit both positions—that of the criminal and that of sovereign authority—and is used by writers to probe into questions of citizenship and social responsibility. One of Barton’s prime examples for such a discursive taking on and trying out the roles of condemned man and sovereign occurs at the beginning of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy (1821) when the Wharton siblings heatedly discuss the legitimacy of Major André’s execution.

The Spy, one of the earliest novels that addresses the death penalty in the context of debates over its abolition, importantly derives its structure from “the drama of the death penalty” and “the scene of execution” (4). Its plot is built around the two near executions of Harvey Birch and Captain Henry Wharton and, situating itself explicitly in a culture of public debate, the novel opens and also ends with a discussion among members of the Wharton family over the historical execution of Major John André. The impending executions in The Spy, then, are the source of two plot structures that will characterize execution literature, as well as film and television, in the decades and centuries to come: the body-swap device and—even more importantly—the race against the clock to prevent the execution. Sylvester Judd’s first and revised version of the execution scene in his novel Margaret (1845, 1851) serves Barton as the most striking example of how the contested shift to the privatization of executions in the antebellum North manifests itself in literature as the question of whether or not to show the execution itself—a question that has haunted aesthetic engagements with the death penalty ever since. Being reprimanded for the “vulgarity” of his execution scene by genteel critics, Judd responded by blackening the respective paragraph in the 1851 edition and thus offered in print a physical reminder of the visceral reality of executions, whether witnessed by the general public or not.

Both Jones and Barton devote a chapter of their studies to Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, a piece that Melville began in the mid-1880s and was still revising at the time of his death in 1891, a piece that was not published until 1924—and a story that was set in the late eighteenth century, but for which Melville took his inspiration from the Somers mutiny affair of 1842. Although Billy Budd can, with no exaggeration, be considered one of the most frequently discussed texts in law and literature, and although H. Bruce Franklin in “Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Three Centuries” (1997) seemed to have said everything that could be said on the topic, both Against the Gallows and Literary Executions offer exciting new readings of Melville’s novella in light of the death penalty. Their different takes on Billy Budd, once more, illustrate Jones’s and Barton’s different approaches and the insights they yield.

Having argued throughout his study that the antebellum period abounded with “cases of intriguing cooperation” between anti-gallows reformers and writers, Jones turns this argument around in his chapter on Billy Budd—a chapter which looks beyond the antebellum period as the central focus of his study, but which works to show the degree to which arguments and tropes of the 1840s and 1850s pervade the novella. In “Melville’s Antebellum Silence About the Gallows” (161-68), Jones argues that Melville, while being well informed about and sympathetic towards the movement to abolish capital punishment, “preferred to maintain a deferential silence” (166) on the issue of the death penalty due to his family relationship with Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, who became his father-in-law in 1847. Shaw pronounced all capital sentences in the state of Massachusetts, twenty-four in the 1840s alone. Jones shows, on the one hand, how Melville displaced the subject of the death penalty “onto other topics” (166) in the antebellum period, for instance on questions of corporeal punishment in the anti-flogging chapters in White-Jacket (1850). On the other hand, Jones demonstrates by drawing on Lemuel Shaw’s rhetorical framings of capital sentences that Vere’s justifications of his actions are modelled on Shaw’s “well-publicized pronouncements of the supremacy of legal duty over feeling and sympathy” (166). A reading of Billy Budd alongside antebellum texts discussed in the preceding five chapters further shows how much Billy Budd is rooted in the literary anti-gallows discourse of the 1840s and 1850s, even while, as Franklin has shown, incorporating a great number of concerns of the 1880s.

Barton situates Billy Budd in the work of Melville and the political climate of the late 1880s by drawing on an enormous amount of literary and extra-literary contexts—ranging from Slidell MacKenzie’s accounts of executions in Spain of the 1820s and 1830s to H. D. Smith’s 1888 account of “The Mutiny on the Somers”—making this chapter the longest, and also most complex of his study. He brilliantly shows how the public debate over the Somers affair inaugurated a new understanding of state authority, or of the authority behind death sentences and executions, which came to maturity during the Civil War and continued to inform political theories of the power of the state in the late nineteenth century. Almost as a side effect of following political theories on state power in relation to civilian and military death sentences from the 1840s through the Civil War to the late 1880s, Barton also offers a history of capital punishment during the Civil War and the postbellum period that can be found nowhere else in scholarship, not even in Stuart Banner’s otherwise authoritative The Death Penalty, which almost exclusively focuses on the shift from the concern about the legitimacy of the death penalty in the antebellum period to one about the condemned men’s physical pain in the postbellum decades.[3]

Barton implicitly and explicitly disagrees with Jones’s suggestion that Melville had “almost nothing to say in his work about the controversy over capital punishment” (Jones 161). Indeed, his reading of White-Jacket, almost contradicting Jones, shows how Melville discusses capital punishment and references the Somers affair in the novel’s chapters 13, 14 and 20 and reads these in conjunction with the later anti-flogging chapters. Moreover, Barton demonstrates that White-Jacket must be viewed as an expression of Melville’s creed in the 1840s that “a citizen’s civil rights are sacrosanct even on a man-of-war” (201), that is even in a state of exception. Melville subscribed to a Democratic understanding of state power and the legitimacy of state violence. Read against White-Jacket, Billy Budd then emerges as a narrative that can neither be easily understood as Melville’s “Testament of Resistance” (as Jones does in line with a host of other scholars) nor as his “Testament of Acceptance.” Barton’s analysis of White-Jacket throws into relief the ambivalences of Billy Budd and, using the figure of Charles Sumner and Abraham Lincoln as two important points of reference, carefully develops the different rationales for state violence that Melville had absorbed since the Somers case. In an 1843 essay, Sumner, a vocal opponent of the death penalty in civil law, defended MacKenzie’s military executions on the Somers, arguing that curtailing civil rights may be necessary in a state of emergency. Lincoln, suspending habeas corpus and authorizing hundreds of military executions, adopted this “emerging Republican justification of capital punishment” (205) and conception of state power. Vere’s dilemma, Barton suggests, must in many ways be read as Lincoln’s (222-23). In Billy Budd, then, Melville, a staunch supporter of the war, moves far from his “straightforward Democratic position” in White-Jacket to register—yet not resolve—the tension between Democratic and Republican understandings of state power that trouble the nation as well as the aging author.

Literary Executions and Against the Gallows differ rather fundamentally in the ways they conceptualize literature—thus asking different questions and suggesting different answers. Whereas Barton sees his job in first constructing the debate about capital punishment from literary and extra-literary texts and then focusing on the complexities of that debate that only more literary texts may be able to give form to, Jones views the debate to a much larger degree as located in an extra-textual realm of law, politics, and activism and, hence, is interested in how literature and its work of affect enters into and participates in it. It is for the reader to decide whether Against the Gallows or Literary Executions might answer her or his interests better than the other, however, they are certainly best read in conjunction. Both monographs open up rather than close an exciting and still under-studied field of inquiry into nineteenth-century literary and legal history. Jones’s and Barton’s ground-breaking works will hopefully inspire scholars to begin looking at literary intersections of capital punishment with questions of race, gender, and economics, at other contentious penal issues such as life imprisonment or lynching, or at other aesthetic and ideological modes than sentimentalism that may be employed in the service of reforming the justice system.


Gießen, Irvine, Amherst                                                                                             Birte Christ


[1]Barton, John Cyril, “The Anti-Gallows Movement in Antebellum America,” REAL: The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 22 (2006): 145-78; 176.


[2] David Garland, Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2010) 24.

[3] Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002).