What were the most important changes the notion of punishment in the 18th century?


The aim of punishment was to create a concoction of fear, terror and shame towards the wrongdoers as an act of deterrence to prevent them from re-offending and future acts of criminality. The range of punishments available at the time were imprisonment and corporal punishment to the judges and magistrates for minor offences, such as theft and vagrancy to the most severe offences against another human being such as murder and rape which was sentenced by the Old Bailey (Emsley 2005:254). Hanging was the main method of capital punishment until it was abolished in the UK in 1967 and the lethal injection and the electric chair was introduced in the United States some centuries , which continues to be methods in some US states at present.

Marxist writers like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels could argue that punishments serves the interests of the ruling class and out of free will, decide on what person or group should be punished and what sentence they should have. However, they could explain that the ruling class abuse the means of punishment for their own selfish interest. In contrast to Marxism, Weberian thinkers like Max Weber views punishment as a symbolism of ‘karma’ or “an eye for an eye”. Functionalist thinkers like Durkheim who argues that punishment creates a form of mechanical solidarity where one punishment suits all types of crimes whereas, under the umbrella of organic solidarity, punishment varies. He could also explain that punishment was to aim controversy by arousing the emotions and opinions of the public gallery.

Michel Foucault (1977 cited in McGowen 1987:652) sees that capital punishment involves the use of the physical body as a ritual that would symbolizes pain, fear and to stigmatize and deter individuals from engaging in criminal activities. Clifford Geertz (1980 cited in McGowen 1987:653) believes that punishment and treatment to the human body represents an implanted image of pain and guilt which converts into a message sent to society as a tool of deterrence that makes people aware of the consequences if they decide to carry out any crime, teaching them to think before they act. It can be argued that pain associates with the physical body represents vengeance among the audiences who believe in retribution.

Metaphors towards the physical body as the use of execution had been expressed by various writers. This include, J.M Beattie (1986 cited in McGowen 1987: 656) compared society to the physical body and argued that society was seen as a social human being ravaged by crime and the only way to treat society and restore its health was to remove the diseased region from the body. To clarify, society has been infected by crime and punishment was seen as a cure which could result in a death sentence. George Osbourne (1733 cited in McGowen 1987: 661 -2), another philosophical writer sees that society was an unstable body where it body part can be easily infected by disease and it has the potential to spread to other parts of the body hence, it would be too difficult to be treat.

Samuel Rossell (1742 cited in McGowen 1987: 661) who displays another metaphor to the physical body which involves amputating the infected region in order to prevent the disease from spreading by explaining criminals are poisonous and gangrenous and must be amputated from society even if it involves execution. It has been argued (Emsley 2005) that the public gallery displayed a remorseless attitude towards the offender being executed. To them, public execution was seen as theatrical scene where they had the opportunity to watch justice being done and the physical body resembles an image of a sentence being carried out rather than a body of concern (MacRae 1975 cited in McGowen 1987: 654).

Enlightenment theorists like Cesare Beccaria and the Quaker reformers loathed the idea of punishment which involves the execution of a human being and abuse of the physical body because as it was barbaric and brutal although he seems to agree with Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism on maximizing pain and minimizing pleasure. It was suggested (Emsley 2005: 267) that punishment should provide the aims which of course, to punish offenders and deter others from offending and punishment should fit the crime. He suggested another a less harsh and barbaric alternative was to deprive offenders off their freedom although he showed ambivalence towards imprisonment (Rothman 1971 and Foucault 1978 cited in Garman 1983: 188). In 1770, Sir William Meredith, the Rockingamite M.P. for Liverpool (Gentleman’s Magazine 1771 cited in Emsley 2005: 267) recommended the House of Commons to arrange an inquiry into the criminal law. He quoted a speech which covered Beccaria’s ideas on punishment and said that a man who embezzled a handkerchief worth 13 pence should be punished the same way if he murdered a whole family of benefactors. However he argued that it would amplify the situation by making the thief worse and dangerous.

Transportation was another form of punishment which was considered to be an important new type of penalty which was handed out to offenders by judges and favours the idea that criminals are diseases to the societal body and needs to be removed to prevent future spreading. It involved people being sent to other colonies to carry out hard labour and other manual tasks. It was considered as cheap and the sentence ranges from seven to fourteen years or to life. The Transportation Act 1784 provided extraction of offenders from the kingdom according to age and the extent of the offence. However offenders who are convicted first time may not be eligible for the death penalty and deserve an alternative to corporal punishment and a discharge (Emsley 2005: 255).

Transportation across the Atlantic start to lose approval because of the wave of the American War of Independence. Despite of the outbreak of the war, the sentence of transportation persisted to be delivered by the courts. In 1751, the House of Commons campaigned for hard labour in the Royal Docks as an alternative to transportation but nevertheless, it was not implemented. Botany Bay was the location that took 778 convicted felons within the Kingdom and those who were transported found themselves incarcerated in appalling institutions such as rotting ships and the hulks and assigned to carry out tasks including labour work in the naval dockyards (Emsley 2005: 255). However, the House of Commons (Emsley 2005: 269) explained that those who were discharged from the hulks had difficulties of finding jobs or receiving parish relief.

The aim of imprisonment was to cut off  offenders from society by depriving them of their freedom and provide them work and uniforms with the intention to strip off their identities and societal memberships. Simultaneously, to cause them emotional pain about their confiscated identities and the deprivation of heterosexual contact (Ignatieff 1978 Conclusion; De Lacy Conclusion 1980 cited in Garman 1983: 189). The Penitentiary Act was passed in 1779 by parliament which was outlined by Howard, Eden and Blackstone which included the construction of two segregated penitentiaries. Unfortunately, they were not built (Emsley 2005: 268 – 9). After appalling conditions of the hulks, many reformers crusaded for well-regulated prisons which stress the aims of amending prisoners and refurbish old hulks. Many reformers and philanthropists like John Howard who owns an estate at Cardington in Bedfordshire were dismayed with the state of the squalor in the county gaol. Simultaneously, he was disturbed by the dilemma of prisoners who were obligated to be enslaved because they were unable to pay the discharge fee to the gaoler (Emsley 2005: 256).

It has been believed (Gentlemen’s magazine 1786 cited in Emsley 2005: 270) that local reformers start to view the penitentiary as an alternative punishment which is considered to be suitable for offenders. It is suggested that strict regimes could reform offenders effectively. Those who were liberated from incarceration, which was fixated with a strict regime would structure them a routine and be used to hard work with the intention to prevent indolence when they are scheduled for release. Imprisonment was suggested to give them the opportunity to engage in religious teaching , help them reflect on their wrongdoings, education and other work-related opportunities which will equip them with the skills and qualification when they are released.

Jeremy Bentham was not only an Enlightenment theorist, but also suggested to have an entrepreneurial spirit within the gaoling field and the mechanics of imprisonment like his panopticon, which he produced in 1791. The intention of the panoptican was to violate the theme of space and time through strict and endless monitoring of prisoners and it was seen as profitable by selling products that would aid the convicts in the divisions of labour (Emsley 2005: 270). Nonetheless, William Eden (Ignatieff 1978 cited in Emsley 2005: 268) distrusted the notion of imprisonment as it could exacerbate offenders by making them more criminalised and dependent rather than making them law –abiding citizens. Prisoners are suggested to be more likely to suffer from mental distress which could increase their risk of loneliness due to long periods of segregation and the levels of prejudice among other inmates.

In conclusion, writers had expressed different views towards the use of punishment. The death penalty in particular, was seen as barbaric and glorifies violence and murder. They feel that the death penalty symbolizes sinking into the levels and minds of murderers rather than illustrating justice. However, it glorifies and symbolizes the eye for an eye and the notion of karma from Weberian thinkers. What was considered to be important in the changes in ideas and forms of punishment highlighted was to meet the needs of discipline among prisoners and the prevention of psychological and emotional distress attached to the strict regime of hard labour, religious and education interventions with the purpose to prepare them for the outside world when they are released.

Beattie, J.M (1986) Crime and the Courts in England, Princeton New Jersey cited in McGowen, R (1987) Journal of Modern History “The Body and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England Vol 5 University of Chicago.

De – Lacy, M.E (1980) “County Prison Administration in Lancashire, 1690 – 1850” Ph.D Dissertation Princeton University cited in Garman, D (1983) Legality, Feleology & the State ch8.

Emsley, C (2005) Crime and Society in England 1750 – 1900 3ed Pearson Education Ltd Harlow ch10.

Garman, D (1983) Legality, Feleology & the State ch8.

Gentleman’s Magazine xli (1771 p147 cited in Emsley, C (2005) Crime and Society in England 1750 – 1900 3ed Pearson Education Ltd Harlow ch10).

Ignatieff, M (1978) Just measures of pain p.57 (cited in Emsley, C (2005) Crime and Society in England 1750 – 1900 3ed Pearson Education Ltd Harlow ch10).

Ignatieff , M(1978) A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in Industrial Revolution, 1750 – 1850. Pantheon, New York.

McGowen, R (1987) Journal of Modern History “The Body and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England Vol 5 University of Chicago

McRae (1975) “The Body and Social Metaphor,” in the Body as a Medium of Expression, ed J. Benthall and T. Polhemus, New York.

Osbourne, G (1733) The Civil Magistrates Right of Inflicting Punishment London pp 5, 9 (cited in McGowen, R (1987) Journal of Modern History “The Body and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England Vol 5 University of Chicago.

Rossell, S (1742) The Prisoner’s Director London (cited in McGowen, R (1987) Journal of Modern History “The Body and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England Vol 5 University of Chicago).


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