hearts and minds

December 20, 2011

Wisconsin Showed the World What Democracy Looks Like

Wisconsin has abolished the death penalty longer than any other government in the world. Wisconsin blazed the trail and set the unwavering example that has since inspired the entire so-called civilized world. Wisconsin is no longer alone in that world. Wisconsin is now entirely encircled by states (Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, and Canada) in which the death penalty has also been abandoned. Sixteen states no longer use the death penalty. Membership in the European Union is open only to countries that have abolished capital punishment. Today, 140 countries no longer impose the death penalty. And in December of 2012 the United Nations General Assembly will be voting on an unprecedented resolution to urge the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. Where will Wisconsin and the United States of America stand on that resolution?

Most Wisconsin citizens today do not know who was responsible for abolishing capital punishment in Wisconsin, or even when it was abolished here.
It was work-your-fingers-to-the-bone, and your-back-till-it-breaks homesteaders and farmers, loggers and fishermen, miners and mill-hands, blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, and brewers;
It was immigrants who escaped with their lives and little else (and with no official permission or papers), from starvation and murderous oppression at the hands of the aristocracy in Europe;
It was pioneers who cleared the land and tilled the soil, many of them without even the “luxury” of help from mules or oxen;
It was families who built homes, and who ate, lived in, and wore, what they could find, grow, kill and butcher, or make themselves.
That’s who abolished the death penalty in Wisconsin – in 1853! – right after becoming a state.
They did it because they started Wisconsin as a democracy, and they intended it to stay that way.

Wisconsin pioneers made a choice for a change. That’s why they came here in 1848.
They did not want to live under the heel of aristocrats any longer – or ever again.
Wisconsin pioneers abandoned Europe for the chance to live in a democracy, instead.
They got the chance and they didn’t waste it.
Freedom loving Wisconsin pioneers abolished the death penalty as soon as they had the chance.
Wisconsin was the first government in the entire so-called civilized world to do it and to stick to it.
Wisconsin has achieved a unique place in history that will be recorded, remembered, and honored for centuries – for as long as human history continues to progress and unfold.

A government that is really of, by, and for the people does not need or want the death penalty.
A democracy, and only a true democracy, is built upon respect for human dignity and human rights.
And only a true democracy could abolish the death penalty for good and not turn back.
In contrast, a government that is not a democracy does need the death penalty.
That kind of government needs the death penalty to control, intimidate, and oppress the people.

Tell me what democracy looks like? THIS is what democracy looks like!
A land without the death penalty!
A land with free speech for the people and the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
A land with due process and equal protection of the laws for all persons.
A land where “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged“.

Why do people today, who supposedly honor the values of our pioneering predecessors, not speak out and oppose efforts to compromise and cripple democracy here and now? They are apparently either unaware of, or they disrespect the bitter lessons our ancestors learned.
They also ignore or deny these facts:
(1) It costs U.S taxpayers more money to put a person on Death Row and execute that person than it does to imprison that person for the rest of his or her natural life.
(2) The death penalty is ineffective and even counter-productive in deterring murder – for example, in 2010, the overall murder rate per capita in the USA was actually 65 percent higher than the murder rate in those states in which the death penalty has not been used for ten years or longer. The 10 states in the United States with the highest murder rates all use the death penalty. Six of the ten states with the lowest murder rates in 2010 have already abolished the death penalty. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1975, and 2 decades later, the murder rate in Canada had decreased to less than 70 percent of what it had been before the death penalty was abolished.
(3) In the U.S., the death penalty is outrageously unfair with regards to factors which should have no place, especially race and economic and social status. For example, the death penalty is only imposed on those who are unable to afford costly legal representation – the wealthy never pay with their lives for murder, no matter how heinous.
(4) Many convicted persons have been proven innocent only by the persistent uncompensated volunteer efforts of students, legal professionals, and journalists. A growing number of officially covered-up false convictions of innocent people on Death Row have been discovered.

In the face of the growing mass of incontrovertible evidence, why does the death penalty yet persist, and why does support for capital punishment re-emerge? The question is deeply troubling. Throughout history, the real purpose of government executions has never been to protect the people from horribly dangerous and violent criminals. And it has not done so. The death penalty persists only because it is a potent instrument of terror, intimidation, and subjugation in the hands of autocratic forces when they feel threatened by the needs and the aspirations of the people, and by courageous people of integrity who challenge corruption, abuse of power, and oppression. The death penalty inflames and indulges the most vile, base passions and instincts of fear and hatred. The death penalty promises to solve some problem – to heal some wound – to satisfy some passion – simply by deliberately killing some people. The death penalty sets a terrible example of injustice and deliberate official murder and terror before us. The death penalty has always demeaned and degraded human nature by denying fundamental human dignity and human rights. The death penalty thus needs to be abolished, worldwide, for the four important reasons noted in the preceding paragraph. But the most important reason for abolition is to everywhere remove that instrument of state sponsored terrorism from the hands of those who would use it.

If reactionaries succeed in imposing the death penalty on Wisconsin for a time, they will have thoroughly corroded the honored leadership-by-example role that we have attained in the world. And our unique place in world history will become reduced to nothing but a soon to be forgotten, ironic, backsliding footnote.

References and sources of information:

Death Penalty Information Center http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty http://www.ncadp.org
Amnesty International USA http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/campaigns/abolish-the-death-penalty
Kairos Campaign (faith based opposition to the death penalty) http://www.kairoscampaign.org
Innocence Project (uncovers false convictions using DNA) http://www.innocenceproject.org
Tx Death Penalty Abolition Movement abolitionmovement.org
Death Penalty Focus http://www.deathpenalty.org

Note: It is important that we recognize that while Wisconsin has had a unique pace-setting place in history among so-called civilized governments, other societies and cultures also rejected the death penalty, and did so much earlier than Wisconsin. Civilization often regards these societies as “primitive”, “savage”, or “barbarian”. And all trace or memory of some of them has been obliterated by civilization. Nevertheless, there have been long-standing, successful, sustainable, organized societies, throughout the world, that learned how to thrive without killing their own members as punishment or behavior modification; without ever using corporal punishment on their own growing children; without fearing, hating, and demonizing those among them who were “different”; without abusing, casting off, and forgetting their elders; without trashing and destroying Mother Earth and her life-sustaining features, and killing all her other creatures. We can learn from, and honor good examples rather than reject and ridicule them – even when the good example is not one that we ourselves have set.


  1. Hi Clyde.This is Kathleen Hart, Director of WI CURE (Citizens United to Rehabilitate Errants). We agree with you and appreciate the history. Can I forward just the info on the death penalty to my list of legislators? Kathleen

    Comment by Kathleen Hart — December 20, 2011 @ 11:53 am | Reply

    • You may be interested in my leaflet version of this death penalty essay. It contains fewer words, and it fits on one 8×11 piece of paper. It may be more concise and more suitable to your purpose. Contact me if you would like that leaflet. I appreciate your interest in the issue and your moral affirmation, Kathleen.

      P.S. Have you read my article on racial disparity in prison, with a spotlight on Wisconsin? It appeared five years ago in my regular newspaper column (which was since canceled by the corporate publisher). This article summarizes and connects the groundbreaking peer-reviewed studies on somewhat different subjects that were done and published by two accomplished researchers working in very different disciplines.


      Comment by clydewinter — December 20, 2011 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

  2. well said!!!

    Comment by Marjie T. — December 20, 2011 @ 2:00 pm | Reply

  3. Well researched and presented. Excellent piece.

    Comment by Maggie's Bear — December 20, 2011 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

  4. Thank you Clyde. As always, a well reasoned eloquent discussion.

    Comment by Nancy H — December 21, 2011 @ 5:37 am | Reply

  5. Good essay, Clyde.

    Comment by Jim W — December 21, 2011 @ 10:54 am | Reply

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