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Humanitarian Essence Captured by the British Parliamentary Debates on Capital Punishment
During the mid-19th century, the House of Commons extensively dealt with, and voted in favour for, the abolition of capital punishment. Public opinion at the time was imbued with a pervading sense of humanitarianism. Mr. Hibbert, a member of parliament, explained, “They all knew the effect which civilization had had on the penal code of this country, and were aware that while the former had advanced, so had the latter receded in its sanguinary character and savageness. The gibbet had burnings, and the tortures of the old code has been progressively softened by milder spirits of modern legislation.” Civilization drove off “barbarisms” which included women being senselessly execute for charges of witchcraft, the state use of torture on those who refused and the ruthless sentencing for traitors, and the “relic of the same system”, capital punishment, was next. Essentially, the development of civilization in Britain ran in parallel with the receding archaic penal laws like crimes for capital punishment.1
The death penalty conflicted with the state's promotion of humanitarianism and civilization. The death penalty was the last vestige of savagery and brutism. Ewart claimed that death depended upon “the maintenance of the old principle of revenge—the lex talionis—for which we were substituting repentance and reform.” Existing British law was based on the principle of revenge which “sanctioned the retaliatory, the vindictive, the sanguinary principle” and was diametrically opposed to the development of civilization and humanitarianism. “The ancient system had been one of vindictiveness and retaliation, while our more modern system was one of priso...

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...the humanitarian principle successfully secured the sentiments from the numerous magistrates, clergymen, judges, the mass people and even “society itself” towards the abolition of capital punishment.13 In 1847, petitions submitted to the parliament revealed that while the subject of abolition initially had “strong interest” seven years ago, “it now assumed a far deeper and more earnest character.”14 Political members from both the Whig and Tory party who staunchly opposed the abolition and the reforms in the 1840 receded considerably. Whig Government Home Secretary George Grey believed that no member in the house would argue for the “Legislature to retrace its steps, and go back to the punishment of death in case where it had been abolished.” He further noted the futility of the Government in keeping capital punishment against the “operation of popular opinion.”15

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