The Death Penalty,
Mutilation, and the Whip
Corporal punishment and capital punishment are rarely discussed together, for fear that the one will trivialize the other. But grouping “the death penalty, mutilation and the whip,” to borrow a phrase from Tocqueville, is not wholly illogical. Corporal and capital punishment lie on a continuum of state-sanctioned violence against the person. And both are areas where the contrast between European and American practice is especially sharp.
The tradition of British corporal punishment is well known to devotees of English literature. Remember the sadistic schoolmasters of Charles Dickens novels? Nicholas Nickleby watched with horror as Wackford Squeers whacked his young friends, and Mr. Creakle threatened to give David Copperfield “marks of distinction.” The boarding school discipline at Eton certainly left a lasting impression on the poet Charles Swinburne, who later composed a 167-page cycle called The Flogging Block, featuring the subtly titled verses “Algernon's Flogging,” “Reginald's Flogging,” “Percy's Flogging,” “Willie's Flogging,” “Charlie's Flogging,” “Edward's Flogging,” “Frank's Flogging,” “Frederick's Flogging,” “Edgar's Flogging,” “Rupert's Flogging,” and “Rufus's Flogging.” A 1977 survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland showed that 36 percent of Scottish high school boys were belted at least fortnightly. Even Tony Blair, as an overly talkative teenager, was given “six of the best” by his housemaster at Fettes College in Edinburgh.
The American tradition of corporal punishment is no less real for being less storied. In Ingraham v. Wright (1977), the U.S. Supreme Court