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America's Death PenaltyBetween Past and Present$
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David Garland, Randall McGowen, and Michael Meranze

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780814732663

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814732663.001.0001

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Through the Wrong End of the Telescope

Through the Wrong End of the Telescope

History, the Death Penalty, and the American Experience

(p.106) 4 Through the Wrong End of the Telescope
America's Death Penalty

Randall Mcgowen

NYU Press

This chapter examines the way in which a particular narrative of historical development was inscribed in the earliest debates over capital punishment. History figures prominently in discussions of the place of capital punishment in the contemporary world, especially when trying to account for the seeming gulf between America's enthusiastic embrace of the death penalty and Europe's recent rejection of the practice. This chapter considers the question of American exceptionalism in relation to the particular historical assumptions at work in a rhetoric of reform that dates from the eighteenth century. More specifically, it considers how assumptions produced by the narrative of historical development shape interpretations of the death penalty. It also explores how the struggle over the death penalty helped establish for Western culture the idea that modernity brought with it greater humanity, and how the affirmation of humanity has been used to defend the death penalty.

Keywords:   capital punishment, America, death penalty, Europe, American exceptionalism, reform, history, Western culture, modernity, humanity

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