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Why and Where the Death Penalty was Established

From the earliest civilizations on Earth, nearly all human societies used execution to get rid of criminals. Before the development of prison systems, this was the most efficient and fast way to incapacitate criminals that posed dangers to a community. Today, the death penalty is still common in various countries for any crime like espionage, terrorism, sexual crimes, religious crimes, drug possession, human trafficking, desertion, and many others.

The History of the Death Penalty

The death penalty has been part of human history ever since humans started forming tribes and communities. In some periods, it was one of the most common forms of punishment, with very few criminals ending up in a prison. Despite its common presence in history, capital punishment is one of the most controversial topics in modern society.

A Controversial Topic

Many thinkers, philosophers, law legislators, and people of various cultural, political, and religious backgrounds explored arguments for and against this issue. A persuasive essay on death penalty can easily provoke heated debates. If you want to know more, looking for a persuasive essay sample can be a good introduction to the main pro and against arguments. You can always find persuasive essay on death penalty online.

A Short Timeline of the First Death Penalty Laws

  • The first death penalty laws were established in the 18th century B.C. in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. The law applied to 25 crimes.
  • In the 14th century B.C, the same law appears in the Hittite Code.
  • In the 7th century B.C, the Draconian Code of Athens makes the death penalty the only punishment, regardless of the crime.
  • In the 15th B.C, the Roman Law includes the death penalty.

Death Penalty in Ancient History

In ancient history, capital punishment was used everywhere from tribes to ancient republics, tribal communities, and even monarchies.

  • In the Torah, the most important book in the Hebrew religion, the death penalty was reserved for crimes such as murder, kidnapping blasphemy, the practice of magic, and sexual crimes. Historical evidence, however, suggests that this was rarely enforced.
  • Used as a punishment for a wide range of crimes in Ancient Greece, the death penalty law was made less severe over time and was applied only for homicide.
  • In the Roman Empire, capital punishment was common for a wide variety of offenses.
  • The Tang dynasty in China abolished the death penalty for a short period of 12 years but reinstated it in 759 to crush a rebellion. Only the emperor, however, had the authority to sentence a person to death. Executions were rare but were seen as a public warning, so the bodies of the executed were displayed openly.

Death Penalty in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages are often regarded as a period of barbarity, so it’s unsurprising that capital punishment was a generalized form of punishment for crimes of various degrees of gravity, especially in Europe.In the 10th century, hanging was the most common execution method in Britain, and it remained the same for the following few centuries. Under the reign of Henry VIII, around 72,000 people were executed. In Europe, the most common causes of the death penalty sentence were related to witchcraft accusations or blasphemy.In the new colonies, the death penalty was often applied, with the first recorded execution in 1608 in Virginia, and the accusation was espionage. The laws varied, however, from colony to colony.

Capital Punishment in the Modern Era

With the emergence of nation-states, justice systems changed all over the world. The natural and legal rights of a citizen become a subject of new debates. In 1764, Cesare Beccaria published in Italy a treatise on capital punishment, demanding the abolition of these laws. The same thing happened in England, where calls for the abolition of the death penalty from influential politicians and public figures increased.

Great Britain reformed its laws at the beginning of the 18th century, eliminating over 100 of the 222 crimes that brought the capital sentence.

The Death Penalty in the 20th century

In the 20th-century, the death penalty was common in Nazi Germany and in various military organizations that aimed to maintain discipline. Another country that established capital punishment in the 20th-century was Lithuania, which used it as a punishment for any political crime, mostly to eliminate Nazis and communists. The death penalty was also established in communist and fascist governments like the Soviet Union or China as a means of political oppression.

What Happens Today?

The atrocities of the oppressive regimes in the 20th-century led to a strong emphasis on human rights, and the abolition of the death penalty became a humanistic goal, followed by many nations around the world. When the U.N. adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the “right to life” was also added.

map death penalty established

Countries That Abolished the Death Penalty

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Canada
  • Several U.S. states
  • All European countries except Belarus
  • Most countries in Latin America except Guatemala and Brazil which still use capital punishment in exceptional cases.

Countries that Retain the Death Penalty

  • 29 U.S. States and the federal government
  • Majority of Asian Countries
  • Less than half of African countries
  • Some Caribbean countries
  • Most Islamic states

In the United States, the death penalty is a controversial topic with some states having banned it decades ago while others still applying it. Various surveys taken over the years are quite persuasive in this regard and suggest that people in the U.S. and many other countries have conflicted views about this issue, with very few respondents having a definite answer. In general, in developed nations, people consider that capital punishment is an offense against human rights. Read this article if you think that there is no more place for the death penalty in the 21st century. Finding a good essay sample on the topic of death penalty also helps to develop a personal opinion in this context.

Despite living in the most advanced eras of all times, people still grapple with millennium-old dilemmas, such as deciding whether taking the life of a criminal is a moral or immoral thing to do. Each nation around the world has fixed this issue in its own way, according to the political, cultural, and religious orientation of its citizens. Looking at the history of the death penalty, however, it’s obvious that this method of punishment has been with humans since their earliest beginnings, and it's unlikely that it will be completely eradicated soon.


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