Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Early Origins of the 8th Amendment’s
“Cruel and Unusual Punishments” Clause
Like many provisions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the protection against “cruel and unusual punishments” prescribed in the 8th Amendment has deep English roots. The text of the 8th Amendment is taken almost verbatim from England’s Declaration of Rights of 1689, an indictment of King James II that reads rather like our own Declaration of Independence and accuses the king and his government of mistreating the people and subverting the law.
Historians generally agree that the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause of the English Declaration of Rights was in response to abuses by the infamous Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys of the King’s Bench during James II’s reign. Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys presided over the “Bloody Assizes”—a special commission that tried, convicted, and executed hundreds of suspected rebels following the failed rebellion in 1685. The Bloody Assizes carried out punishments that included drawing and quartering, burning, beheading, and disemboweling those convicted. But these punishments, as vicious as they might sound to us today, were specifically authorized by law at the time. More recent scholarship suggests that it was not the nature of the punishments that led to the Declaration of Rights provision, but the arbitrary sentencing power that Jeffreys had used in sentencing those found guilty. Many believed that Jeffreys was merely inventing special penalties for enemies of the king, and that those penalties and punishments were not authorized by the common law or by statute.
Thus, the Declaration of Rights objects to the “illegal and cruel punishments inflicted . . . All which are utterly and directly contrary to the known laws and statutes and freedom of this realm.” 1 Wm. & Mary, Sess. 2, ch. 2 (1689). Legal discussions at the time of the Declaration of Rights indicated that a punishment was not considered wrong only because it was severe or even disproportionate to the crime; but a punishment was “cruel and unusual” if it was “out of the Judges’ power,” “contrary to the law and ancient practice,” “without precedent,” “illegal,” or imposed by “pretence to a discretionary power.” The phrase “cruel and unusual” was often synonymous with “cruel and illegal.”
By the time of America’s founding many of the colonies had constitutions with provisions very similar to the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause of England’s Declaration of Rights. In 1791, five States prohibited “cruel or unusual punishments, and two more States prohibited “cruel” punishments. The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights ultimately followed Virginia’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Because there were no federal common-law punishments, the clause effectively served as a check upon the Congress, not upon federal judges, so there is some question as whether “unusual punishment” continued to mean a punishment “contrary to law” as it had meant under English law. Instead, “unusual punishment” came to mean one that “does not occur in ordinary practice.” Webster’s American Dictionary (1828). It is widely believed that by forbidding “cruel and unusual punishments,” the 8th Amendment prevents Congress from authorizing particular kinds or modes of punishment, especially cruel methods of punishment that are not regularly or customarily used.
The debates in the state ratifying conventions support the idea that the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause was designed to prohibit certain forms of punishment. In the Massachusetts Convention in 1788, for example, one objection to the Constitution (without a Bill of Rights) was that Congress was “nowhere restrained from inventing the most cruel and unheard-of punishments, and annexing them to crimes; and there is no constitutional check on it, but that racks and gibbets may be amongst the most mild instruments of discipline.” 2 J. Elliot, Debates on the Federal Constitution 111 (2d ed. 1854). A Bill of Rights was needed, they argued, in order to prevent Congress from “inventing” such punishments and resorting to vicious types of discipline.
Early commentaries on the Amendment also indicate that it was designed to outlaw certain types of punishment: “The prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, marks the improved spirit of the age, which would not tolerate the use of the rack or the stake, or any of those horrid modes of torture, devised by human ingenuity for the gratification of fiendish passion.” J. Bayard, A Brief Exposition of the Constitution of the United States 154 (1840). And, as Justice Story observed in his Commentaries on the Constitution, the 8th Amendment was “adopted as an admonition to all departments of the national government, to warn them against such violent proceedings, as had taken place in England in the arbitrary reigns of some of the Stuarts.” 3 J. Story, Commentaries of on the Constitution of the United States § 1896 (1833).
As the history and origins of the 8th Amendment make clear, criminal punishments should not be arbitrary or exacted by judges contrary to the law; and neither should they be “unusual” or torturous methods of discipline that are beyond the ordinary forms of reproach. The 8th Amendment helps to protect against such punishments, and is yet another example of the Founders drawing upon their understanding of the rights of Englishmen, adapting the rights and laws of England to their own circumstance and government, and learning the lessons of history so as not to repeat the same mistakes.
Nathaniel Stewart is an attorney in Washington, D.C.
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April 6, 2012
Essay # 35