1 minute read

The Early Years of American Law

Changes In Criminal Punishment

Due to the growth in population and the "cruel and unusual" punishment clause in the Bill of Rights' Eighth Amendment—death, torture, and public humiliation, all common in early colonial days—were gradually falling out of public favor through the 1700s. By the end of the eighteenth century many criminal justice reformers opposed the death penalty and other forms of physical punishment such as whippings and brandings. Reformers claimed these punishments were contrary (opposite) to the newly adopted Eighth Amendment that prohibited cruel and unusual punishment.

While many people believed these extreme forms of public punishment had been effective in small communities, their effectiveness declined as cities grew and became less personal. Hangings at the time of the Revolution were public spectacles drawing in some cases thousands of onlookers. Reformers argued such public violent deaths probably promoted bad behavior more than discouraged it—by exposing the public to violence. Reformers believed locking up criminals for long periods of time was more humane (caring) and effective as to prevent future crimes. At the time, however, the jails used to lock up convicts were small and primitive.

In 1790 Philadelphia opened a sixteen-cell house called the Walnut Street Jail. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawThe Early Years of American Law - Colonial Freedom, Britain's Push For Greater Control, A New Start, A New Criminal Court System