This summer Mrs Acilius and I read Ryan P. Jordan‘s Slavery and the Meetinghouse, a study of the great difficulty American Quakers had in the years 1821-1861 trying to decide on an approach to take to the issue of slavery. Last night I was reminded of this passage, from pages 114 through 115 of Jordan’s book:
The editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Sydney Howard Gay, wrote that the Anti-Slavery Society disagreed “with the philosophy of the Quaker[s]” who when appointed to political positions would not hang a man themselves but “would appoint a Deputy that would.” “We do not believe,” continued Gay, “in appointing Deputies to do what we think to be wrong for ourselves to do.”
Gay wrote these words in October of 1848, when many American Quakers were rallying to support the presidential campaign of slaveholder Zachary Taylor. In the willingness of the ostensibly antislavery Quakers of the day to support a slaveholding president, Gay saw cowardice. He equated the cowardice he believed he saw in this matter with the cowardice he saw in the same Quakers in regard to the death penalty. In the seventeenth century, the founders of Quakerism opposed the death penalty, and in many parts of the world that opposition continues even today in an unbroken line of tradition. The Quakers Gay saw in the antebellum USA paid lip service to that tradition, but many of them merely hid behind others while they became complicit in executions.
What brought this to my mind last night was this tweet from author Michael Brendan Dougherty:
I don’t like Rick Perry. And I think he failed in his answer on this. But it is wrong to say that “Rick Perry has executed” people.
To which I responded:
@michaelbd “it is wrong to say that “Rick Perry has executed” people.” Better Grover Cleveland, who did the job personally, than to delegate
Only someone with a lively interest in nineteenth century US history would be likely to know what I was talking about there, so permit me to explain. In 1872, Stephen Grover Cleveland was sheriff of Erie County, New York. The law of the state of New York in those days declared it to be the responsibility of the sheriff of each county to hang the prisoners condemned to death for crimes committed in that county. As this 1912 New York Times article (pdf) put it, “In the office of Sheriff of Erie County there had for many years been a Deputy Sheriff named Jacob Emerick. Mr Cleveland’s predecessors had from time immemorial followed the custom of turning over to Emerick all the details of public executions. So often had this veteran Deputy Sheriff officiated at hangings that he came to be publicly known as ‘Hangman Emerick.'” Evidently Emerick didn’t enjoy this sobriquet, and Cleveland noticed that the law explicitly named the High Sheriff as the officer responsible for hangings. So when Patrick Morrisey was scheduled to be hanged on 6 September 1872, Cleveland resolved to execute Morrisey himself. To return to the Times article, “Cleveland surprised the community and his friends by announcing that he personally would perform the act of Executioner. To the remonstrances of his friends he refused to listen, pointing to the letter of the law requiring the Sheriff to ‘hang by the neck,’ &c. He furthermore insisted that he had no moral right to impose upon a subordinate the obnoxious and degrading tasks that attached to his office. He considered it an important duty on his part to relieve Emerick as far as possible from the growing onus of his title of ‘Hangman.'” The following year, Cleveland again acted as hangman, putting one John Gaffney to death. Cleveland was subsequently elected mayor of Buffalo, then governor of New York. He was the Democratic Party’s candidate for president of the United States in 1884, 1888, and 1892, winning the popular vote on all three occasions and winning the electoral vote in 1884 and 1892. He remains the only US president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office and one of only four candidates to win the popular vote three times. He is also the only former sheriff to go on to become US president.
It is because of Cleveland’s willingness to look Morrisey and Gaffney in their faces and pull the lever that dropped the platform from beneath their feet that I have more respect for him than I do for Rick Perry. In his years as governor of Texas, Mr Perry has signed death warrants that have consigned the 234 people to death. So far from performing these executions himself, Mr Perry seems never even to have attended an execution. And while Cleveland could acknowledge that performing an execution was one of the “obnoxious and degrading tasks attached to his office,” Mr Perry claims to regard signing death warrants as a carefree exercise. This difference alone shows that Grover Cleveland lived in a different moral universe than does Rick Perry. People whose imaginations are shaped by television and video games may think of indifference to human life as a form of strength, and of personal encounters with the object of one’s violent behavior as unimportant. Such views would likely have struck a man of Cleveland’s sort as a sign of profound moral and spiritual immaturity. Granted, executions were far more routine in America in the nineteenth century than they are today, even in a death-penalty happy state like Texas. But does the fact that we execute fewer people today mean that we take the matter of life and death more seriously than the Americans of Cleveland’s day took it? Or does it simply mean that other features of our society have interfered with the smooth functioning of the “machinery of death“?