An 1835 editorial in the British reform newspaper Morning Herald, from an 1837 volume opposed to capital punishment. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
American “Lynch Law” Murders —in support of Slavery.
Let those who have been taught to regard a “pure democracy” as a mode of Government infinitely preferable to that of the mixed Constitution of England, only look to the manner in which the democratic spirit works in the States of North America.
It is not long since the American Journals gave us abundant accounts of club-law, in all the savage vigour of that ancient democratic usage, being called in to regulate “Freedom of election,”—ay, and that too with the balloting urns on the hustings—those infallible preservatives of all that is pure and independent in the exercise of the elective franchise! Now we see how the administration of justice improves in the same country, where tyrant-mobs undertake both to make the laws and put them in force, being at the same moment Legislators, Judges, Witnesses, and Executioners!
The apologists, if there be any such, for the horrible and systematic murders of the American mobs, will probably tell us that their love of justice is so great that they cannot brook the delay of the ordinary forms of law, and
so they execute criminals, or alleged criminals, without trial. Sometimes, too, they seize and put to death, or to torture, persons who have been tried and acquitted in due form of law, two instances of which recently occurred; in the one case the acquitted person was carried off by the mob, and actually burnt alive—in the other the acquitted person was flogged until he begged it as an act of mercy to be put to death.
This mode of administering justice is called “Lynch’s Law,” and seems likely, as things go in America, to supersede all other law. It has the recommendation of being a law in which there is nothing of the “law’s delay”—of being also “cheap law,” for the Judges administer it without a salary, and even the Executioner operates without a fee.. It is also a law that saves the trouble of deliberation, and excludes all the perplexity which ensues to conscientious Juries on hearing both sides of the case. It is true that the innocent who happen to be unjustly accused area as likely to suffer as the guilty; but then, as the French democrats of the first Revolution justified their systematic murders on the plea of being committed in the cause of Liberty, why may not the American democrats justify their murders on the ground of being committed in the name of Justice?
An Evening Contemporary (the Courier) of last night says, in speaking of the contents of the New York Papers—
‘Another important circumstance in those Papers is the rapid extension of Lynch’s Law in the United States. Several instances of that have lately been noticed, but the present is the most horrible we have yet met with. From our extracts it will be seen that no less than five persons were hanged by the Lynch executioners at Vicksburg, on no better ground, apparently, than that they were gamblers. A quarrel ensued, says an account, at a dinner table; one of the citizens had a degrading punishment inflicted upon him, and the populace assembled to expel all the gamblers from the place, and destroy their apparatus—the gamblers armed for their own protection—an assault took place, and one of the citizens was killed—in the
exasperation of the moment, five persons were seized on and hanged, without even the form of a trial. Thus one violence led to another—a hatred of vice and angry words led to wholesale murder.’
Now we can hardly think it was a hatred of vice that led to the attack upon the gamblers, if it be true, as one account states, that the citizen who was killed in the affray was himself a gambler, who having gone into the gambling-house with the intention of winning other people’s money, lost his own. Love of cruelty, rather than hatred of vice, is the stimulating motive in general to mob justice—the most hardened ruffians make the best executioners.
But inhuman and revolting as was the summary execution of the tavern-keeper, his waiter, and three persons found on his premises at Vicksburg, we do not agree with the Courier that it is the most horrible instance of the putting in force the “Lynch Law” that we have yet met with. The cold-blooded massacre related in the New Orleans American, of July 13 last, is, in our opinion, infinitely worse. Here is the account in the words of that Journal, the writer of which seems rather to approve than reprobate the crime:—
‘A letter was received here on Saturday, from Livingston, Mississippi, stating that two itinerant abolition preachers had been seized by the inhabitants, who, after receiving proof that the wretches had endeavoured to create a revolt among the negroes, and after hearing their defence, caused them to be hanged in the streets, together with seven negroes who had listened to their doctrines. Warning is given to the abolitionists that they may expect similar treatment all over the South.’
Here we have another instance of the extraordinary love of justice that actuates an American mob-tribunal in executing the last sentence of the law. They hanged the abolition preachers because they had proof that they intended to create a revolt—no revolt having, in fact, taken place; and they hanged the seven negroes—for revolting? No:—For intending to revolt? No:—For what, then? For the crime of having listened to the abolition preachers! It
appears they did not stop their ears with cotton when the itinerant preachers preached against Slavery. On the contrary, not having the fear of the sovereign people before their eyes, and being moved and instigated by the love of freedom, they maliciously, feloniously, and of their malice aforethought listened; and listening to an abolition preacher by a slave being a capital crime in free and republican American, the listening slaves were hanged. Whether the American democrats have by this application of “Lynch’s Law” evinced a greater love for Justice or for Freedom, we are at a loss to determine.
Is this the land of Washington and Franklin?—the land of liberty, par excellence, where “Freemen” drag off slaves to the gallows, and hang them up for listening to doctrines that militate against the most odious and degrading slavery that ever contaminated civilized society? Is this the land of pure and immaculate Republicanism, where for a Helot not to be delighted with his chains is a capital crime, and deserving of instant extermination? And such is the doom proclaimed against all who preach the Abolition of Slavery in the South, and of every slave who listens to them! Every one who dares to read the Gospel to the slaves must fall under this sentence of the mob-inquisition of America!
We turn with disgust from the heart-sickening picture of democratic baseness and tyranny which is here presented to our view. But the more we look to what has been and what is done in “fierce democracies,” the more reason shall we find to admire and venerate the mixed Constitution under which have grown up and flourished the enlightened and regulated liberties of England.—Morning Herald, Tuesday, August 25, 1835.