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Histories of Capital Punishment in the United States

Photograph of the electrocution chamber at Sing Sing Prison, circa 1915. Image via the Library of Congress.

In late July, Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to resume the practice of execution after a prolonged period of discontinuation. Barring a successful legal challenge or reversal of policy, the five incarcerated persons now scheduled for execution will be the first federal inmates put to death since 2003.


Barr’s directive runs counter to recent shifts in public opinion and state practice. In the sixteen-year interval since the federal government last administered the death penalty, nine states have prohibited capital punishment, bringing the total number of those opposed to twenty-one. In many of the states where the death penalty remains legal, governors have issued moratoriums against its application, or prison officials have simply ceased to implement it.


Yet, proponents of the death penalty have not given up the fight. Legislators in eight states have recently introduced bills to reinstate capital punishment. Earlier this year, Colorado Democrats paused legislative efforts to ban the death penalty when it became apparent they could not muster the votes within their own party. Whether and how Barr’s directive will weigh on these campaigns remains to be seen.


To assist readers who would like to learn more about the history of the death penalty in the United States, the Journal of American History has compiled the following index. This index consists of seventeen book reviews printed in the JAH since 1982.


The titles listed below will be freely available through October 2019.

Author Title Reviewer Year of Book Publication
Michael L. Radelet The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado Daniel LaChance 2017
Daniel LaChance Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States Jürgen Martschukat 2016
John D. Bessler Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment Helen J. Knowles 2012
David Garland, Randall McGowen, and Meranze Michael, editors America’s Death Penalty: Between Past and Present Jürgen Martschukat 2011
Paul Christian Jones Against the Gallows: Antebellum American Writers and the Movement to Abolish Capital Punishment Louis P. Masur 2011
Stephen John Hartnett Executing Democracy: Capital Punishment and the Making of America, vols. 1 and 2 Alan Rogers 2010 and 2012
David M. Oshinsky Capital Punishment on Trial: Furman v. Georgia and the Death Penalty in Modern America Alan Rogers 2010
David Garland Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition Scott Christianson 2010
Alan Rogers Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts Howard W. Allen 2008
Howard W. Allen and Jerome M. Clubb Race, Class, and the Death Penalty: Capital Punishment in American History Jürgen Martschukat 2008
Jürgen Martschukat Geschichte der Todesstrafe in Nordamerika: Von der Kolonialzeit bis zur Gegenwart (History of the death penalty in North America: From the colonial period to the present) Markus Dirk Dubber 2002
Banner Stuart The Death Penalty: An American History Stephen Hartnett 2002
Hamm Theodore Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948–1974 Scott Christianson 2001
Herbert H. Haines Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994 David W. Levy 1996
Eric W. Rise The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment Michal R. Belknap 1995
Louis P. Masur Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 Blanche Linden-Ward 1989
Philip English Mackey Hanging in the Balance: the Anti-Capital Punishment Movement in New York State, 1776-1861 Kathleen Smith Kutolowski 1982


For more from the Journal of American History, click here.

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