Peculiar Institution

Peculiar Insitution

By Christophe Ringer, Vanderbilt University


Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in the Age of Abolition

David Garland

Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2010), 417 pp.


Currently, 35 states in the United States of America continue the use of the death penalty. In 96 percent of the states where reviews of race and the death penalty took place, a clear pattern of racial discrimination, regarding both defendants and victim has been demonstrated.


How do we make sense of the persistence of the death penalty in America in an age of abolition? To unravel this and other aspects of this “peculiar institution,” David Garland’s Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in the Age of Abolition is an excellent place to start.


As a consequence of our current culture wars in America, discussions of the death penalty often feel formulaic. One would have a hard time imagining a new argument — either for or against the practice. Yet, Garland, long noted for his scholarship on mass imprisonment, has managed to say something new. Peculiar Institution masterfully weaves history and cultural analysis to examine the persistence of the death penalty and why it speaks volumes about America’s complicated identity and history.


State sovereignty

It has long been accepted that the power to administer punishment and death is a defining aspect of state sovereignty. For many scholars, the image of sovereignty has been profoundly marked by the detailed description of an 18th century public torture and execution in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.


A key factor in the emergence of the modern state, the death penalty effectively removed legitimate violence from the private realm of vengeance and vendetta. Moreover, public execution became drenched in Christian symbolic meaning with the prisoner’s path toward the scaffold mirroring the procession toward Calvary. For Garland, the gruesome spectacle was clearly designed to communicate the “… worth of a lowly individual was no match for an angered God or an injured sovereign.”


With the use of prisoners for labor and greater social security Garland argues that the death penalty lost its grounding in divine justice and what “… had once been a tragic necessity now become a contingent and conditional choice.” The methods of execution began to reflect the norms of “humanity, certainty and decency,” effectively shielding the public from the “sights and sounds” of death.


Garland argues, however, that this fading spectacle, designed to demonstrate the grave consequences of transgressing the power and honor of the monarch, does not adequately disclose the cultural logic of the death penalty in America. Rather, a better place to start would be the public spectacle of lynching. Lynching serves as a primary starting point for two major themes, which give Garland’s historical sweep continuity: the history of race relations and the particular form of state power seen in America.

The power and influence power of local politics in America is an perennial theme in Peculiar Institutions. Thus, lynching represented not “… state sovereignty affirmed but rather of state sovereignty contested — by ‘the people,’ the mob, the county — in the name of popular justice and white supremacy.” Moreover, lynching often served as a media event which were “… putting death into discourse, circulating images of dead black bodies, exploiting the tremendous entertainment potential …”


Legacy of racism

Garland persuasively argues that executions today are designed not to look like lynching. Thus, modern-day executions take place not in public but in the “backstage” of society, away from public view. In addition, executions are not performed by a mob, but by a state official and designed to minimize bodily harm (e.g., lethal injection).


However, it is precisely this appearance that is able to simultaneously preserve and conceal the legacy of racism and the death penalty through the language of “law and order,” “being tough on crime,” “states rights,” and “upholding traditional values.”


Garland’s narrative arc situates the profound societal changes in the 1950s and ‘60s with the increased power of the federal government to bring about social reform. This story moves toward a brief moment of American abolition in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia. Attending to cultural currents, Garland effectively situates the ruling within “backlash” politics of growing white resentment. Thus, many citizens regarded the court’s ruling as an attack on their values. The 1970s would see the reinvention of capital punishment as the cultural and political litmus test for one’s commitment to “law and order.”


In Garland’s hands, the death penalty emerges from the familiar legal, religious, and philosophical arguments “for and against.” What appears is an institution that is not archaic or out of touch with America, but rather an institution that stands in for its deepest values, contradictions, tragedies, and ideals. Peculiar Institutions is an intellectually rich and sobering reading for those willing to confront the use of death and the death penalty in American culture.



Christophe Ringer Christophe Ringer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University. His areas of research include public theology; African-American religion and politics; religion and social sciences; and critical prison studies. .


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