A debate over capital punishment in the early American republic - Robert Annan's view

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In July 1788, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a noted physician, Presbyterian, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, published an essay in The American Museum in which he argued for the abolition of the death penalty: “An Enquiry into the Justice & Policy of Punishing Murder by Death.” This was a radical position at the time, and it was met with a vigorous rebuttal by Associate Presbytery pastor Robert Annan, then serving at what was known as the Old Scots Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (now known as Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church) - who himself published replies in the Philadelphia Mercury, and Universal Advertiser (Sept. 25; Oct. 2, 4, 7 and 23, 1788) under the pen name “Philochoras,” and then a two-part article in November and December issues of The American Museum. Rush responded further in the Oct. 21, 1788 Philadelphia Mercury and in the January and February 1789 American Museum. In 1792, Rush published an additional pamphlet titled “Considerations on the Injustice and Impolicy of Punishing Murder by Death.”

To his friend the Rev. Jeremy Belknap of Boston, Dr. Rush wrote on Oct. 7, 1788:

My essay upon the punishment of murder by death has been attacked in our newspapers by the Reverend Mr. Annan. He rants in a most furious manner, so far from treating me with the meekness of a Christian, he has not even treated me as a gentleman….His arguments are flimsy and such as would apply better to the 15th than the 18th century….They all appear to flow from his severe Calvanistical [sic] principles.

Annan’s rebuttal to Rush has been criticized for “ad hominem attacks, slippery slope fallacies, prolepsis, and other rhetorical strategies that make him seem like like a calm man of the cloth and more like an anxious debater arguing the losing side of a case,” while the same historian acknowledged that Annan “speaks authoritatively about the Bible” (Stephen John Hartnett, Executing America: Capital Punishment & the Making of America, 1683-1807, Vol. 1). But both Rush and Annan acknowledged that Rush’s condemnation of the death penalty was also linked to a condemnation of the legitimacy of war as well. In one of Rush’s rejoinders, “he sought 'to refute what Rush called an attempt ‘to justify public and capital punishments, as well as war, by the precepts of the gospel’” (John D. Bessler, Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, p. 77).

Dr. Rush’s arguments against capital punishment may be found elsewhere online, but Rev. Annan’s arguments in its favor have been more difficult for many to find as a primary source. An extract from his closing remarks will permit him to speak for himself:

Humanity is become the popular cry! Weak men join in the cry, to gain the applause of the unthinking; but, as understood, it degenerates into nonsense. Liberality, in religious sentiments, is become as popular and common a cry! But what is this liberality of sentiment? It is, with too many, a total indifference about religion; with many more, a high contempt of it. We are become so wise, as to see, that even the tolerant zeal of our forefathers, for the support of religion, was absurd bigotry and folly. We can do without it – But, if we once ſhould arrive at such a state, as to lose all reverence for God, and all dread of civil government too, all regard both to divine and human laws, we will soon feel the consequences, and they must be tremendous!

In fine, I cannot help expressing my wishes, that our author, who is truly amiable on many accounts, and (I believe) a sincere friend to humanity and society, would, for the future, abstain from hazarding such sentiments. I wish it for his own sake. They cannot honour him. – To treat the word of God, as if it gave an uncertain sound, or were obscure, where it is altogether explicit; to treat the wisdom of the wisest men, as if it were follv and savage cruelty, cannot honour him.

I wish ever to be a friend to humanity — but let it be a rational and judicious humanity. Humanity of this kind is the image of God on man. May it increase more and more! But that humanity, which would overturn the pillars of justice, order, and good government, the laws of God and man, I deprecate as the worst of evils! Humanity, that would spare murderers, would be the most shocking inhumanity and cruelty to the religious, sober, and virtuous part of the community. For, if the wicked may destroy the life of the innoçent, while no power on earth can lawfully touch the life of the wicked, injuſtice is more powerful than justice; lawless outrage more mighty than legal government; Satan stronger than the Almighty; the war, between the kingdom of justice and the kingdom of injustice, quite unequal; and the advantage entirely on the side of iniquity, which would soon establish it’s throne.

The full text of Annan’s 1788 2-part article in The American Museum is now available to read online here.