Against the Death Penalty
Writings from the First Abolitionists—Giuseppe Pelli and Cesare Beccaria
The first known abolitionist critique of the death penalty—here for the first time in English
In 1764, a Milanese aristocrat named Cesare Beccaria created a sensation when he published On Crimes and Punishments. At its centre is a rejection of the death penalty as excessive, unnecessary, and pointless. Beccaria is deservedly regarded as the founding father of modern criminal-law reform, yet he was not the first to argue for the abolition of the death penalty. Against the Death Penalty presents the first English translation of the Florentine aristocrat Giuseppe Pelli's critique of capital punishment, written three years before Beccaria's treatise, but lost for more than two centuries in the Pelli family archives.
Peter Garnsey examines the contrasting arguments of the two abolitionists, who drew from different intellectual traditions. Pelli was a devout Catholic influenced by the writings of natural jurists such as Hugo Grotius, whereas Beccaria was inspired by the French Enlightenment philosophers. While Beccaria attacked the criminal justice system as a whole, Pelli focused on the death penalty, composing a critique of considerable depth and sophistication. Garnsey explores how Beccaria's alternative penalty of forced labour, and its conceptualisation as servitude, were embraced in Britain and America, and delves into Pelli's voluminous diaries, shedding light on Pelli's intellectual development and painting a vivid portrait of an Enlightenment man of letters and of conscience.
With translations of letters exchanged by the two abolitionists and selections from Beccaria's writings, Against the Death Penalty provides new insights into eighteenth-century debates about capital punishment and offers vital historical perspectives on one of the most pressing questions of our own time.