Edifying Terror: Publicity and the Problem of Punishment

Emily Merrill is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “Judging Empire: British Military Courts and the Politics of the Body,” explores the intersections of gender, military, and empire in the late eighteenth century by examining cases of bodily assault prosecuted by British military courts during the Revolutionary War.

The brutality of military discipline in the British Army, which regularly sentenced enlisted soldiers to severe floggings of hundreds of lashes with the cat o’nine tails for relatively minor crimes—such as drunkenness or not wearing their uniforms properly—horrified civilian observers in Britain and America alike.

What justifications did the officers who administered these punishments give for this customary treatment of offenders? Did they believe that these severe floggings would convince miscreants of the error of their ways, or instill in them a determination to reform their behavior? Or were they unconcerned with rehabilitation, seeking only to inflict suffering upon convicted soldiers in retribution for their crimes?

Officers often thought that rehabilitation was an impossible goal—not necessarily because enlisted soldiers were incorrigible reprobates, but because military punishments were too severe to have any beneficial effect. “Men are sooner reclaimed by lenity than severity,” one officer wrote. “There can be no faithful soldiers who are too much accustomed to tortures and punishments.”[1]

But the severity of military justice also undermined claims that the sentences handed down by courts-martial were, in fact, just. In addition to floggings for minor crimes, it was not unusual for a soldier who had been convicted of theft, or of assaulting (but not injuring) an officer, to be sentenced to death.

The savagery of these punishments attracted much criticism for their bloody excess, often far out of proportion to the crime and inconsistent with religious tradition. But military officers contended that they were necessary. Stephen Payne Adye, a Deputy Judge Advocate during much of the Revolutionary War and the era’s acknowledged authority on all things related to military justice, conceded that “The laws of man are supposed to be founded on the laws of God and Nature.” But, he claimed, contemporary society was simply too wicked for courts to adhere to the magnanimous Old Testament principle of strict retaliatory justice.

“[T]o observe strictly…eye for eye, wound for wound, stripe for stripe, life for life, &c. would not suit the present degenerate age,” Adye claimed. “The depravity of mankind often obliges us to swerve from the law of Moses.”[2] Similarly, Bennett Cuthbertson, another military author, thought that “Subordination, and strict Discipline, can not (from the general depravity of the Soldiery) be properly supported, without having recourse to the severest punishments.”[3]

In any case, authors concurred, the true purpose of punishment was not, in fact, to see justice served, but to terrorize those who witnessed it. The trial itself was a public performance, but the inflicting of the sentences was even more so, being deliberately engineered for publicity and compelling other soldiers to act as witnesses. After a conviction, the men of the prisoner’s regiment were assembled to hear the charge, proceedings, and sentence of the court-martial and to witness the punishment. Books of military instruction noted the importance of carrying out all sentences publicly: “When a soldier is to receive the corporal punishment of flogging with a cat o’ nine tails, it is inflicted by the drummers of the regiment in presence of all the officers and soldiers.”[4]

Setting a public example was primary. “All punishments…[are] intended to deter others by the terror of example,” wrote John Williamson, who thought that the need to terrorize witnesses and set before their eyes the awful consequences of misbehavior was most important; inflicting retributive justice upon the criminal was rather a secondary concern.[5] And the threat of violent punishment should be always present: “Whenever the Regiment is under Arms, the Drum-major should have his apparatus for whipping, constantly with him,” instructed Cuthbertson, “as it sometimes happens, that Courts-martial are necessary at the Drum-head, and that the execution of their sentence should be immediate, in order to strike the greater terror.”[6]

Similarly, executions were to occur in the presence of the whole army so that all might bear fearful witness and learn from the criminal’s unfortunate end. General James Wolfe expressed such hopes for witnesses to the execution of one of his soldiers:

“The lieutenant-colonel hopes that what the men have heard and seen upon the occasion (of the execution of a deserter) will make such impressions upon them as it ought to do; and that they will be prevailed upon by the melancholy example before them, and by the excellent discourse and exhortation of the minister, both yesterday and this day, to set some bounds to their excesses and debauchery, and thereby avoid the cause of every crime, and the punishment that must necessarily follow.”[7]

And the lesson did not end with death: “After the criminal is declared to be dead, by the surgeons who attend for that purpose,” Williamson claimed, “it is the custom to carry the mangled body three times round the parade or place of execution, in order to render the example more striking, and to impress the greater terror on the minds of the spectators.”[8] Officers justified these punishments, then, because they were not particularly concerned with the effects upon the offenders themselves, but with the effects upon the spectators. This was a system that not only invited publicity, but deliberately insisted on it, for it allowed those in power to publicly proclaim the righteousness of the army’s brutal and violent acts. The crucial component of their understanding of the role of punishment in maintaining discipline was the edifying terror of spectacle: a public and violent reminder of army’s structures and hierarchies of power.


[1] Richard Lambart, A New System of Military Discipline, Founded Upon Principle (London, 1773), 265.

[2] Stephen Payne Adye, A Treatise on Courts Martial  (London: Printed for J. Murray, 1778), 125-6, 150.

[3] Bennett Cuthbertson, A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Œconomy of a Battalion of Infantry (Dublin, 1768), 143.

[4] John Williamson, The Elements of Military Arrangement (London, 1791), 174-6.

[5] Williamson, Elements, 177.

[6] Cuthbertson, System, 147.

[7] James Wolfe, General Wolfe’s Instructions to Young Officers Also His Orders for a Battalion and An Army (London: Printed for J. Millan, 1768), 33.

[8] Williamson, Elements, 181.

One response

  1. This is certainly true, but it might be usefully seen in the context of the overall level of violent punishment within the larger society. In Britain, one was hung for stealing more than four pounds, and deported/put in the hulls for less.

    Harsh punishment in the colonies might have been perceived there as excessive because (a) it drove fugitives over the open frontier, (b) set a bad example among the natives, who saw the vilification of white men. Furthermore, one might explore whether Hessians (Germans) were treated differently from British-born troops.


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