In the mid-1990s, as public trust in big government was near an all-time low, 80% of Americans told Gallup that they supported the death penalty. Why did people who didn’t trust government to regulate the economy or provide daily services nonetheless believe that it should have the power to put its citizens to death?
That question is at the heart of Executing Freedom, a powerful, wide-ranging examination of the place of the death penalty in American culture and how it has changed over the years. Drawing on an array of sources, including congressional hearings and campaign speeches, true crime classics like In Cold Blood, and films like Dead Man Walking, Daniel LaChance shows how attitudes toward the death penalty have reflected broader shifts in Americans’ thinking about the relationship between the individual and the state. Emerging from the height of 1970s disillusion, the simplicity and moral power of the death penalty became a potent symbol for many Americans of what government could do—and LaChance argues, fascinatingly, that it’s the very failure of capital punishment to live up to that mythology that could prove its eventual undoing in the United States.
About the Author
Daniel LaChance is assistant professor of history at Emory University.
“Executing Freedom is a truly extraordinary book. It offers a remarkable reading of the resonance of America’s death penalty and some of the deepest strains in our culture, in particular beliefs about negative freedom. In addition, LaChance offers important lessons for abolitionists, warning that the problems in the death penalty system are not simply its assault on human dignity or its arbitrary and flawed administration, but rather its failure to generate the meaning that modern citizens crave. From start to finish, this book provides a sophisticated and persuasive analysis of the cultural life of capital punishment.” — Austin Sarat, author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty
“Executing Freedom is a brilliant exploration of capital punishment’s place in American culture over the past half century. LaChance connects the death penalty to virtually every aspect of American life, including movies, politics, religion, and the family. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in capital punishment.” — Stuart Banner, author of The Death Penalty: An American History
“LaChance brilliantly reframes the recent history of the death penalty in the United States around the competing discourses of freedom, governance, and agency. His analysis is complex and compelling. Interpreting fictional and non-fictional sources of crime and punishment ranging from In Cold Blood to the TV series Dexter, he argues that the death penalty reemerged in the 1970s as an assertion of the negative freedoms ‘from’ big, centralized, welfare oriented, technocratic government. His conclusion regarding the future of the death penalty is startling: the death penalty will become a casualty of its own success. Not only has it failed in its promise of retributive justice and moral certainty, it has become the apotheosis of big government programs it was supposed to supplant. This book will change the way scholars think about the death penalty and the way activists work to abolish it.” — Patricia Ewick, author of The Common Place of Law: Stories from Everyday Life
“Exemplifying anthropologists’ attentiveness to the movement of legal ideas in and out of the courtroom, LaChance traces shifting perceptions of—and support for—the death penalty in relation to Americans’ formulations of freedom. . . . LaChance suggests that abolitionists would be wise to highlight the moral dissatisfaction of victims and their families whose suffering is prolonged by lengthy appellate litigation. Rather than glorify executions, death penalty narratives should draw attention to that which is unremarkable about capital punishment— depicting the sanction as a senseless interruption of life for the condemned.” — Political and Legal Anthropology Review
“Departing from the existing literature on capital punishment in the US and its effect on society, historian LaChance, examines the place of the death penalty in American culture. His unique interdisciplinary approach uses history, law, sociology, and politics to show how shifting attitudes on capital punishment have caused shifting attitudes on culture in the US. . . . The author concludes with deliberate, reflective, and detailed examples of how the cultural discussion of capital punishment is simply not about freedom. An important book best suited for anyone generally interested in issues related to capital punishment, history of retribution, and the role of legal culture in the death penalty. Essential.” — Choice
“Fiercely provocative. . .A must-read for socio-legal studies and punishment scholars who want to know more about how the phenomenon of capital punishment took on a life of its own in the modern US cultural imagination.” — Theoretical Criminology
“This book breaks new ground. It expands the study of capital punishment and its recent history beyond the analysis of political and legal struggles, and explores how the death penalty. . .By covering a wide ground—from legal cases to Dirty Harry (1971), from the religious Right to last meals, from national discourse to local politics—LaChance shows compellingly and convincingly that punishment provides a major gateway to exploring a society and culture, its paradigms and politics.” — Journal of American History