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Justice and Revenge

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

The good of the community, the safety and security of the individuals, is the direct and ultimate end of civil government. Therefore, that is politically and really just, which is necessary to this end. Goodness and benevolence to the great whole ought always to be the end aimed at in punishing particular offenders. The depraved state of human nature, which causes the necessity of civil government, not only justifies, but requires punishment, as the necessary penalty of the law. This punishment is sometimes awfully severe and shocking, as when a criminal is brought to the gallows. The scene is so truly dreadful, that a tender, compassionate heart can scarcely exclude from it the idea of cruelty. It is, therefore, highly necessary, that our minds should be taught and habituated to distinguish between cruelty and justice. Justice, in the matter of punishment, obliges the judge, the executive officer, to inflict the severest penalty of the law, even death itself, purely from a regard to right or justice, and with a benevolent design to the public good. Cruelty is either undue and needless punishment, or the inflicting a necessary punishment with a spirit of revenge and hatred against the unhappy criminal. If a jury in drawing up a verdict, even upon the fullest evidence against a murderer, or the judge in sentencing him to death, are actuated by the spirit of personal hatred or revenge, they themselves are really murderers in the sight of Heaven, even while they are employed in the execution of necessary justice. From the murderous source of private pique and revenge, frequently arise those mobs and riots which destroy the peace of society, and oppose the important end of government. These outrageous ebullitions of heated, misguided malevolence, are equally detestable in their principle and dreadful in their consequences. Every true friend to government and good order must seriously lament, and will endeavor to suppress these whirlwind bursts of violence, which indiscriminately tear down all before them, and equally involve the innocent and the guilty in promiscuous rain. At the same time it is evidently true that these horrible calamities and disorders are frequently occasioned by the magistrate’s neglecting his duty in not preventing, or timely removing the unhappy occasions of them. It is, therefore, the wisdom and incumbent duty of civil rulers to prevent these dreadful crimes by wise laws steadily executed, which is much easier in itself, and safer to the community, than being reduced to the hard necessity of punishing them; and one or the other of these must be done, or else government is at an end. Let us give, for illustration, an instance, which nearly affects the peace and quiet of these States. Should those who have gone from us, and cruelly taken part with the enemies of their country, be permitted to return with impunity, and run at large among us, the certain consequence will be mobs, riots, and bloodshed; for a people who have had the spirit to go out and fight them, with their less guilty associates, in the field of battle, will not patiently endure to have such a desperate gang patrolling about among them, with envenomed hearts prepared for secret mischief and murder. And, therefore, by way of prevention, it is the plainest duty of our rulers, both legislative and executive, to take effectual care for having those noxious and dangerous criminals either closely confined, or banished from our land, otherwise their neglect of duty in this matter may bring upon themselves the very guilt of blood.

I have heard some Tories still remaining among us, and some, indeed, of pretty enormous gigantic size, express their uneasy fears, that we shall not be able to keep up and maintain any regular government among ourselves. This I have justly considered as an implicit threatening, that they should still be able, as they have ever been disposed, to create great disturbances and confusions in the State, and cut out more work for the civil authority than they would well know how to despatch. Now, I think these gentlemen have an undoubted right to be relieved from those uneasy fears by such a vigilant conduct, and resolute exertions of authority, as may at once prevent mobs, and convince Tories too, that a people who have strength and courage sufficient to withstand the combined force of all their enemies without, have also wisdom and spirit enough to maintain government among themselves, and effectually curb every disturber of the peace.

I have heard it queried by some, whether those who desert from the enemy, and voluntarily come back again to us, do not thereby merit a pardon and restoration to favor? I grant, that if they had done this a year or two ago, when they were kindly invited to it by repeated proclamations of grace and favor, they would have had something to plead. But to leave the enemy now, and quit a desperate cause, hath not the least atom of merit; gives not the least rational evidence of a change of heart, or betterness of disposition, any more than a tormented sinner’s squirming out under the back door of purgatory, for the sake of better air, is full proof of his evangelical repentance and fitness for heaven.

In a word, there is a plain, essential difference between personal revenge and public justice; one is murder, the other is saving life. Should a wretch murder the only son of a judge; the judge ought, in his private capacity, to forgive him from his heart this very great injury, pray for him, and sincerely desire his happiness, while, in his public capacity, he is obliged in justice, and for the public good, to pronounce the sentence of death upon him.

In like manner we are bound, by the laws of Christ and humanity, to exercise a sincere personal forgiveness towards the most guilty and injurious enemies of our country, and not be actuated in the least by an unforgiving spirit of revenge, while the public are obliged, from a principle of justice and self-preservation, to fulfil all those seemingly rigorous measures which are necessary for putting it out of the power of those enemies to do still greater mischief to the community.1


1 From the Connecticut Journal, republished in the New York Journal, December 14.