Capital punishment is a highly controversial and emotional subject about which most people seem to have strong opinions. The debate is by no means new -- there are conflicting references to capital punishment dating back to the Bible (see Document 1). Nearly two millennia later, we're still arguing the issue and perhaps are no closer to resolving it.
In the United States, controversy over capital punishment began in colonial times when, against the wishes of the English Crown, some settlements enacted only a few capital laws (Document 3). Soon after the War for Independence and the adoption of the Constitution, America's death penalty debate began in earnest. Armed with the right to free speech afforded by the new democracy, and infused with a "revolutionary spirit" as well as the philosophies of the European Enlightenment, some Americans began to question whether government should have the power to end a life -- even the life of a convicted criminal.
Tracing the evolution of the capital punishment debate from this period forward -- and in the original words of many of its most eloquent and vociferous participants -- has proven to be a fascinating experience. Perhaps more revealing than the changes that have occurred is the fact that many of the issues and arguments of the debate appear to have changed so little over time.
The earliest arguments both for and against capital punishment were taken directly from the Bible. Early colonial settlements such as the Mas-