Wednesday, April 6, 2011

American Exceptionalism?

In the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson gave a nod to 
a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.
He didn't say we should necessarily bow to those opinions.  In fact, he was saying we should explain the reasons for declaring independence so that the world would understand.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
But the point that the world matters, that's got some independent heft. Not that we should necessarily bow.  The majority, after all, isn't always right or moral.  But attending? considering?  Those things make sense.  Always.  To ignore them is to value ignorance, it's to pretend I'm right because I say so is a logically compelling argument.
So take a look at this map.

That's a picture of the world in 1961.
The countries in various colors had, by that time, abolished the death penalty, mostly abolished the death penalty, or just stopped killing people.  The different colors indicate which is which.

Same thing, but 2010.
You'll notice there's been change.  
You'll notice it even more if you go the way cool original that includes a key, allows you to check out the changes at each 5 year interval, and lists each change so that you don't have to wonder, say, which that little country in the middle of wherever is.  Oh, and you can zoom in for close ups.
A quick summary in bullet points.
  • The world has turned sharply toward abolition.
  • The US has not.
  • The US is now alone in the Western Hemisphere.
  • The US is now almost alone in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • All of Europe, South America, Australia, and significant portions of Africa and Asia are now abolitionist.
  • We're not.
Does it matter?
It tends to support, I suppose, the theory of American Exceptionalism either in a good way or a bad one depending on your point of view.
And consider a real piece of American originalist thinking.
[A] decent respect for the opinions of mankind.
Amnesty's full report on the status of the death penalty, worldwide, in 2010 is at this link.

H/t for the chart to Equal Justice USA.


  1. I can think of no words more inspiring on this subject than those considered words of Justice Harry Blackmun, a conservative:

    "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have develop...rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor...Rather than continue to coddle the court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved...I feel...obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies."
    Callins v. Collins (1994) 510 US 1141

  2. This is an impressively ingenious argument in support of the propriety of American courts citing foreign precedent as persuasive authority, particularly in death penalty cases. Might I ask if this argument is "original" with you? Not that I'd think any less of your post if it isn't. In retrospect, it'd be somewhat surprising if during the extensive debates over the propriety of using foreign precedent no one else had thought of it. The argument is both ingenious and "obvious," sitting as it is right there in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence.

    I've always thought it significant for America that the simple subject and verb of that sentence is "respect . . . requires."

  3. I'd be very surprised to learn that I'm the first person to make the argument, though I'm not consciously aware of having seen it made elsewhere.

    Glad you like it. Perhaps Anthony Kennedy will cite me for it sometime. (Nah, not a chance.)