Executioner-in-Chief: a tour of U.S. Presidents and the death penalty

George Washington as Revolutionary War general did not scruple to hang or shoot troublemakers to keep order in the Continental Army, and even approved the first federal execution in U.S. history. But none of that held a candle to the import of the (possible) summary execution Lt. Col. Washington’s forces dished out in a frontier skirmish back in 1754 that helped start the Seven Years’ War.

A sour note on America’s first president: he was ready to let Thomas Paine, that firebrand, go to the guillotine in revolutionary France. (Paine barely avoided that fate.)

Washington’s successor John Adams was a lawyer who had notably defended the British redcoats who fired on an American crowd at the Boston Massacre — successfully defeating a capital charge, to his great pride.

I have reason to remember that fatal Night. The Part I took in Defense of Captn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgement of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Execution of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

Adams stood at loggerheads with his eventual successor Thomas Jefferson over federal powers and foreign diplomacy, a conflict that eventually led the controversial rendition of a sailor whom the British hanged in Jamaica. Though the victim was humble, the case remains a keystone executive powers event still cited in legal briefs to this day.

The fourth president James Madison — scion of an old Virginia plantation family, Madison’s grandfather had been poisoned by his own slaves in a landmark death penalty case — tried his luck seizing Canada from the British while they were busy with Napoleon and got the White House torched instead. (Indirectly generating the national anthem.) That didn’t mean that soldiers savvy enough to desert were spared the firing squad.

Madison was followed by James Monroe, the last president from the “Founding Fathers” generation. The young Monroe had served in the Continental Congress, and was a member of the first U.S. Senate; he had also been the U.S. envoy to Revolutionary France at the climax and conclusion of Robespierre’s Terror, and leveraged French-American goodwill to save from the guillotine the kin of the American Revolution hero (and French Revolution proscribed reactionary) Lafayette.

Like his presidential father, John Quincy Adams traced the family name to colonial slaveholders; in J.Q. Adams’s case (though not his father’s, since the lineage came via wife and mother Abigail Adams), one piece of human chattel once in the family was a famous escaped slave turned pirate who met his end on the gallows. John Quincy Adams was named for the magnate who used to own that fellow.

Less genteel by far was Andrew Jackson, who readily shot alleged deserters in the War of 1812 and raised himself to presidential contention with the legally doubtful hanging of two British subjects during his incursions into Florida. (Propaganda traducing Jackson for his executioner proclivities gave birth to the first “coffin handbills”.) Legal or not, Jackson successfully pried the state out of Spanish hands: thanks for the hanging chads, Old Hickory!

The Honey Badger of the White House, Jackson said he only had two regrets: “I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” Calhoun was Jackson’s own Vice President.

Political cartoon shows Andrew Jackson stringing up his predecessor John Quincy Adams, who balked Jackson of the 1824 election.

Jackson’s other Vice-President Martin Van Buren succeeded as a one-termer. Van Buren was the former Attorney General of New York, in which capacity his office had helped prosecute a few capital cases in its day (Van Buren personally assisted in the capital prosecution of Maggie Houghtaling and Nathan Foster); he also put a bow on Jackson’s ghastly “Indian removal” policy by forcing the Cherokee into a death march to Oklahoma.

William Henry Harrison and his grandson Benjamin Harrison are among the Republic’s less remarkable executives, but their blue-blooded family traces its roots back to a beheaded English noblemen.

The John Tyler administration had tragedy in the cabinet itself when the son of Tyler’s Secretary of War was controversially hanged at sea for mutiny by a paranoid ship’s captain. This execution helped spur creation of the U.S. Naval Academy to professionalize the whole outfit.

Only a few years later, a like fate befell the son of Millard Fillmore‘s Attorney General: that lad was executed in Cuba after being captured on a filibustering expedition.

Filibustering, a discreditable hybrid of piracy and putsch, was (among other things) a strategy to maintain the Slave Power’s political parity by annexing neighboring territories of southerly latitudes. It was all the rage at this point in U.S. history in part due to Anglo success in the Texas Revolution and James K. Polk‘s ensuing Mexican-American War. That war gave the U.S. more than half of Mexico, and gave Mexico heroic martyrs in the noblest bunch of turncoats that Yankees have never heard of, the San Patricios — Irish immigrants who got wise to the odious land-grab and deserted the forces of future U.S. President Zachary Taylor to fight for the Mexicans.

In this “cryptic satire” of the 1848 election, outgoing Democratic president James K. Polk (depicted as the executioner) and the party’s successor nominee Lewis Cass (with victims on a chain as he flourishes his top hat) have various rival politicians of the era lined up for beheading. (Detail view; click for the full image.)

Manifest Destiny was in the air. Isaac Stevens, a Mexican-American veteran, got posted to the new Washington Territory as a plum for supporting Franklin Pierce. There, Stevens strong-armed the indigenous peoples, eventually resulting in the hanging of Chief Leschi.

Also in the air: civil war. The last antebellum president, James Buchanan, went whistling past the imminent graveyards, instead trying to stir up more trouble with Mexico over an American citizen’s hanging — a provocation that even made it into Buchanan’s State of the Union address.

But the real provocation of his time was anti-slavery paladin John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent hanging in Virginia, omen of the bloody war to come.

With the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the slavery question was settled on the battlefield, with scads of military executions into the bargain. Honest Abe earned his “Great Heart” reputation for liberal clemency grants with a number of pardons, including one on the very day of his assassination. (Outside of the war between the states, Lincoln also advanced the largest mass hanging in U.S. history, of 38 Sioux in Mankato, Minn.)

Northern propaganda widely anticipated treasonous Confederate President Jefferson Davis being “hanged on a sour apple tree”: a sour apple is one of the caged Davis’s heraldic props in this depiction of John Brown come to avenge slavery upon him. Davis was not executed, however.

Lincoln was the first U.S. President to be assassinated, and the conspirators in the operation were hanged inside of three months on Andrew Johnson‘s okay. Johnson also leaned on France to withdraw from a Mexican intervention, hanging out to dry their imported puppet Hapsburg emperor whom Mexican republicans promptly shot.

Stateside, the tragic era of Reconstruction ensued, rolled back by Southern resistance that extended to extrajudicial executions. Prior to his presidency, former Union commander Ulysses S. Grant quashed a war crimes case over Confederate General George Pickett’s wartime execution of POWs; once in office, Grant took a similar bygones-be-bygones approach to Spain’s execution of U.S. nationals to avoid war over Cuba. Grant also appointed Isaac Parker to a federal judgeship in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Parker became the Old West’s most famous hanging judge.

Late 19th century America is an age of weak and forgettable presidents, although the march of science continued apace and American ingenuity gave birth to the electric chair.

James Garfield (who counts as an ancestor the very first man hanged in the Plymouth Colony) had his term cut short by an assassin’s bullet. The vice president who succeeded him, Chester A. Arthur, could hardly in good conscience spare the assassin Charles Guiteau, even though Guiteau was as mad as a march hare.

Democratic President Grover Cleveland, who got his start in politics as the sheriff of Buffalo, N.Y., had actually personally conducted executions, leading Republicans to label him “the Buffalo Hangman”.

Republicans to this day have not captured the White House without taking Ohio, but that was no problem for the first 20th century occupant of the White House. William McKinley, himself a product of the Ohio political machine, mounted the Spanish-American War, and the U.S. took over Spain’s former job of executing Filipino rebels. But McKinley didn’t even make it through 1901 before an immigrant anarchist (subsequently electrocuted) assassinated him and put Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.

Teddy did not hesitate to let the law take its course; he denied clemency, for instance, in the first fairly legal hanging in Alaska and the case of two Philippines War deserters. But closer to home, all Roosevelt’s bluster — “whoever in any part of our country has ever taken part in lawlessly putting to death a criminal by the dreadful torture of fire,” Roosevelt said, “must forever after have the awful spectacle of his own handiwork seared into his brain and soul. He can never again be the same man” — was useless against the burgeoning of lynch law. Lynchings increased every year of Roosevelt’s tenure and white southern congressmen blocked any federal response. The NAACP was founded days before T.R. left office.

William Howard Taft used the Nicaraguan government’s execution of two American terrorists as an excuse to invade. After losing the 1912 election, Taft was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court where he pushed the judicial reorganization that still structures the high court’s handling (and usual rejection) of death penalty appeals. (His great-grandson Bob Taft served as governor of Ohio during that state’s recent ramp-up of executions.) Before his own 1930 hanging, mass murderer Carl Panzram fantastically claimed to have burgled Justice Taft’s home in 1920 and committed 10 murders with the ex-president’s stolen gun.

Woodrow Wilson invaded Haiti after a political execution, but he kept the U.S. out of World War I until he didn’t. Wilson presided over the nadir of race relations … which is why an Oklahoma white supremacist named his son for Woodrow and gave the future folk troubadour Woodie Guthrie a lynching in the family to live down.

Roaring past the Twenties, we come to the Great Depression. That economic calamity ousted President Herbert Hoover, who could nevertheless count himself fortunate to have escaped a Buenos Aires bombing attempt plotted by Severino di Giovanni — an anarchist eventually executed in Argentina for other more successful terrorist attacks in retaliation for Sacco and Vanzetti‘s electrocution.

Hoover gave way to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR, who narrowly escaped assassination himself, was surprisingly among the 20th century’s more prolific U.S. executioners owing to his pre-presidency tenure as Governor of New York. As the wartime president for most of World War II, Roosevelt also convened a secret military tribunal that ordered the electrocution of a group of German saboteurs who’d been dropped by submarine on the U.S. mainland.

Harry S Truman named Robert Jackson to prosecute the postwar Nuremberg trials, and saw the Cold War begin with the Chinese execution of military chaplain John Birch. (Hence, the Society of his name.) Closer to home, Truman survived an assassination plot, and commuted the resulting death sentence of the Puerto Rican nationalist who had come gunning for him.

Dwight David Eisenhower took office well-known to Americans for his wartime generalship. It was he who approved the controversial shooting of Eddie Slovik during that war; Slovik remains the last American executed for desertion. As commander-in-chief, Ike had more life-and-death decisions to make … like refusing clemency to Soviet agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

The 35th president John F. Kennedy put his signature to the last U.S. military execution to date … as well as the overthrow (and summary execution) of troublesome South Vietnam ruler Ngo Dinh Diem. Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reaped the whirlwind for that.

“How can they say he hasn’t faithfully executed the law?” runs the caption to this Watergate-era Herblock cartoon.

The death penalty was disappearing from the U.S. at this period, although this was hardly true throughout America’s global sphere of influence. Thus, Henry Kissinger under Richard Nixon toppled Allende and made countless martyrs, then complained in the Gerald Ford administration when Angola shot an American mercenary.

Jimmy Carter is an outspoken death penalty foe these days, but when the death penalty returned to the U.S. it was courtesy of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling called Gregg v. Georgia. Carter as governor of Georgia signed the legislation at issue in that case, reinstituting the death penalty and setting the template for the contemporary capital murder trial.

(In an embarrassing sidelight, Carter’s wife Rosalynn took a handshake photo with Illinois Democratic operative John Wayne Gacy, later exposed as a serial killer.)

Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan was a tough-on-crime guy, but owing to the death penalty lull which spanned Reagan’s political career, he only signed off on one single death warrant in his entire life. Reagan’s secret arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, however, did result in the hanging of the Iranian official who exposed the Iran-Contra scandal.

Death penalty politics were so toxic that a CNN journalist without any apparent trace of shame posed this question as a “gotcha” in a 1988 presidential debate.

Reagan’s Veep George Bush, once a World War II airman who came within an ace of being executed on a Japanese-occupied Pacific island, knew a good thing when he saw it and kept clobbering Democrats as soft on crime. God only knows what bodies are under his floorboards from his years in the CIA, but Bush as politician never had to make that agonizing life-or-death decision in any case coming out of the judiciary. It’s quite possible, however, that the unfinished business Bush pere left with Saddam Hussein encouraged his famously execution-happy son George W. Bush to blunder his way into Iraq. Bush the younger also authorized the first modern federal execution, that of Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh.

Though he couldn’t match the younger Bush’s execution count, inter-Bush President Bill Clinton famously kneecapped the party’s liberal base by theatrically overseeing the execution of a mentally disabled black cop-killer while on the 1992 campaign trail.

The post-Bush successor, Barack Obama, showed little taste for capital punishment, drone assassinations aside — but the father for whom he titled his autobiography came to the U.S. to sire the future president on a scholarship program created by Kenyan politician Tom Mboya. Mboya was later murdered, and his assassin swung in 1969.

Against every standard of reason and probability, he was succeeded by authoritarian twitter troll Donald Trump, whose want of statecraft had not excluded him from making a notorious intervention in the country’s racialized death penalty politics back when he was merely a loudmouthed real estate developer in 1989. The Donald put his John Hancock to his first real-life death warrant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Full-page advertisement Donald Trump published in the New York Daily News on May 1, 1989 demanding the execution of five Black and Latino youths accused in a high-profile gang rape attack on a jogger in the city’s Central Park. The ‘Central Park Five’ were later cleared of any involvement in the crime but only after spending between 6 and 13 years in prison apiece. Despite DNA exonerations, Trump has continued to claim that the men are really guilty.

On this day..

4 thoughts on “Executioner-in-Chief: a tour of U.S. Presidents and the death penalty

  1. Pingback: Die US-Präsidenten und die Todesstrafe » Gedanken zur Todesstrafe

  2. Nice list.

    You should also mention the “extrajudicial execution” of President Kennedy. In most countries that would have been called a coup d’etat.

    Also, Kennedy was shocked that Diem was removed from office. He made a mistake picking a warmonger ambassador to Viet Nam.

    An aborted assassination attempt on JFK was planned to happen in Chicago at the same time as the coup against Diem. A good sourcebook on this is James Douglass, “JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters”

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