Samuel Joseph May and the Death Penalty


We often think of Samuel Joseph May in terms of his work with abolition, women’s rights, and even education. However, he also was very vocal in his repudiation of capital punishment.


From Donald Yacovone’s Samuel Joseph May and the Dilemmas of the Liberal Persuasion, 1797-1871, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.


“May’s opposition to slavery, war, and capital punishment rested upon the Unitarian rejection of orthodoxy’s view of human nature as innately depraved. Unitarianism stood for the liberation of humanity and equality and affirmed humility, meekness, and love,” p. 55. “He would not officiate at the execution of criminals since he opposed the death penalty,” p. 29.


From the New York Daily Tribune, July 25, 1851.

Capital Punishment: Six Reasons Why It Should Be Abolished

By Samuel J. May

He wrote a long article for this newspaper. Here is a summary of the points he made.


We should take every suitable occasion to expose the inhumanity and uselessness of Capital Punishment. To such, allow me to address some of the reasons why I think Capital Punishment ought to be abolished.

1.     Capital punishment should be abolished because it is cowardly and mean to inflict it. The wretched men who can be made to suffer it, are already subdued, already in the hands and at the disposal of the State. There is nothing more to be feared from them, and the safety of no one requires their death.

2.     The Death Penalty ought to be abolished, because the infliction of it ever has been, and ever must be cruel and demoralizing. Is it not cruel, extremely cruel to take a human being, one who like ourselves can feel so exquisitely, physical pain and mental anguish, to his death.

3.     Capital punishment ought to be abolished because it generally falls upon those who have been depraved by the customs and institutions which society maintains. A very large proportion of the murderers are found to have been brought up in ignorance, to have been driven to desperate courses by oppression, or made insane by intemperance.

4.     Capital punishment ought to be abolished because, although it be the highest penalty the Law can inflict, it is not denounced against the highest offenses. Death is inflicted upon him who kills, or with violence defiles the body, not upon him who kills or defiles the soul. Yet, need I ask which is the greatest offense.

5.     Capital punishment ought to be abolished because it is vindictive, not reformatory. If there be any class of our fellow beings who should excite our deepest commiseration, and call out our best efforts for their relief, they are they who have been hurried by their passions to commission of crimes that awaken general horror. These are fallen men, but they are men for all that.

6.     The Death Penalty should be abolished because the State has, and can have, no adequate authority to take the life of a human being. It is universally conceded that we have no right individually to take the life of a man except in self-defense. Whence, then, did the Government of the State get the right to deprive one of life in any other case.



Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006