In his essay, “The Penalty of Death,” Henry Mencken asserts that“one of the prime objects of all judicial punishments is to affordthe same grateful relief” to the direct victims of the wrongdoingreprimanded and the moral citizen. Thus, Mencken’s viewpoint isthat giving some sense of reprieve to the moral citizen and thevictims is the fundamental basis for punishing a criminal. Hesupports his assertion by undermining the notion (supported byopponents of death penalty) that hanging a man is ineffective,revolting, dreadful and degrading. Through the usage of hyperbole,humor, anecdotes, a plethora of examples, and mocking euphemisms,Mencken elucidates the pro-death penalty viewpoints by highlightingits impartiality and imperfection. The thesis employed is implicit,as the essay derides the statements utilized to support theproposition. Thus, the author supports the death penalty and directsthe writing to a refined audience fascinated by the death penalty orits supporters, but also offers recommendations to improve, forexample, by limiting the prosecutorial time. The essay is effectiveand persuasive in supporting the death penalty by utilizing satireand irony.
Mencken repudiates the two commonly used arguments against the deathpenalty by positing that capital punishment is effective and isneither dreadful nor revolting. He humorously asserts, “There are,indeed, many other jobs that are unpleasant, and yet no one thinks ofabolishing them–that of the plumber, that of the soldier, that ofthe garbage-man.” Furthermore, the claim is supported by personalaccount of some executioners who takes pride in their work. Accordingto Mencken, the purpose of punishing criminals is to get revengerather than to deter others. He says that the discharge of katharsisthrough retribution is the greatest contributor to pro capitalpunishment sentiment, as it only offers temporary relief to “theimmediate victims of the criminal and the general body of moral andtimorous men.” On the other hand, “the salubrious discharge ofemotions,” illustrates the effectiveness of death penalty, as itallows the moral citizens and victims of the criminal to see theoffender suffer, as they grieved. His argument that capitalpunishment is directed to crimes encompassing the indefensible anddeliberate killings and therefore is just is supported by otherscholars (Eaton and Christensen 337). Thus, the essay shows thatdeterrence is not the only goal of capital punishment, but is part ofthe dozen reasons. In his satirical, yet honest anecdote of thesentence, Mencken endeavors to negate the notion behind the argumentsof anti-death penalty and provide some counterarguments. However, heprovides rebuttals to his argument by asserting, “Why torture himas not even cannibals would torture their victims?” Moreover, hesays that the wait before facing the executioner is horribly cruel.Thus, although he supports capital punishment, he refutes some of itsaspects. He agrees that “the work of the hangman is unpleasant.Granted,” but then he offers a counterargument that otherunpleasant jobs exist.
Mencken employs satire to persuade his audience, especially whensupporting and highlighting the flaws in the death penalty. However,he keeps the sarcastic tone simple and utilizes colloquialism andclichés to offer the readers a personal relaxed voice. For example,he claims that uplifters commonly oppose the capital punishment byarguing that “hanging a man is a dreadful business, degrading tothose who have to do it and revolting…,” The notion is toexaggerate the American priority on a person’s comfort rather thanraising the fundamental grounds behind the death penalty, forinstance, right to life. The author has configured the essay in aproblem-solution structure by refuting the two opinions against thecapital punishment and giving his humorous thesis about relief as asolution. He employs logos, for example, “A school-boy, dislikinghis teacher, deposits a tack upon the pedagogical chair the teacherjumps and the boy laughs,” to persuade the readers to supportcapital punishment. Moreover, in underscoring the effectiveness ofthe death penalty and the significance of katharsis, Mencken givesthe example of a person A who turns his bookkeeper (B) to the policeafter stealing. Turning person B to the police makes person A forgetabout the stolen money and allows him to have peace. The authoremploys ethos to highlight the flaws present in the judicial system.For instance, when he says “Why torture him as not even cannibalswould torture their victims?” to show that the time a criminal isforced to wait before he is hanged is too torturous. Moreover, headopts a humorous tone, such as, “no temporal limitations uponGod,” and “More, it has been done” to appeal to the educatedreaders interested in the death penalty.
The essay is effective in conveying Mencken’s satiricalstandpoints. The sense of humor employed shows that he intends tosupport capital punishment, but also illustrate the horrible life ofthe condemned criminal. He supports his sarcastic proposition“katharsis” by providing examples and its significance to thehuman nature. However, his anecdote of katharsis is ambiguous as itdoes not necessary relate to “a healthy letting off of steam”.For example, the narrative of the schoolboy is erroneous because theboy acts maliciously and out of dislike as evidenced by his laughter(he is contented with revenge rather than letting off steam).Mencken’s comparison of an executioners’ business to theunpleasant work of soldier, plumber, garbage man, and sandhog ismisguided and faulty as a hangman’s work is not necessary in asociety. Derrida asserts that societies where capital punishment isoutlawed functions peacefully (16). The unpleasantness of theoccupations does not relate at all, as although all other jobs arenecessary in the society, the work of an executioner is onlypermitted in societies that support the sentence. Mencken makes abold generality of “Every law-abiding citizen feels menaced andfrustrated until the criminals have been struck down” that isinarguably untrue. Majority of Americans oppose the death penalty andwould prefer wrongdoers that deserve the severity of the worstpunishment to suffer in jail (Eaton and Christensen 330).Consequently, Mencken supports capital punishment and provides aneffective persuasion, but out of enough evidence delivers somegeneralizations and ambiguous assertions.
Derrida, Jacques. The death penalty. Vol. 1. Universityof Chicago Press, 2013.
Eaton, Judy, and Tony Christensen. "Closure and its mythsVictims’ families, the death penalty, and the closureargument." International review of victimology 20.3(2014): 327-343.
Mencken, Henry Louis. “The Penalty of Death.” In Prejudices:Fifth Series. Jonathan Cape, 1926. Print.