Last week, the American Bar Association urged Kentucky to indefinitely suspend executions, after its researchers found that 50 of the 78 people who’ve received death sentences there later had their convictions overturned on appeal. Trial attorneys for ten of these falsely convicted persons have since been disbarred, at least five of them for conduct related to the capital cases, the ABA reported.
Coupled with the Georgia execution this past September of Troy Davis – a man whose guilt was very much in doubt– the findings should reopen the debate about the death penalty in the United States, the only western democracy that still practices this form of punishment. Like so many policy issues in American life, the battle lines of this conflict fall starkly on regional lines. Supporters of the death penalty are overwhelmingly concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy and, to a lesser extent, the Western interior.
But the regional divisions are far greater than most people realize. Our traditional way of defining regions – dividing the country along state boundaries into a Northeast, Midwest, Southeast and Southwest, without regard for historical settlement patterns and the lasting cultural fissures they established – greatly understates the differences on the death penalty and most everything else. We need to remake our mental map if we are to understand what divides us.
As I argue in my new book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America— the original clusters of North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Islands – and from France, the Netherlands, and Spain – each with their own religious, political and ethnographic characteristics. For generations, these discrete Euro-American cultures developed in remarkable isolation from one another, consolidating their own cherished principles and fundamental values, and expanding across the eastern half of the continent in nearly exclusive settlement bands.
Today there are eleven regional cultures, including the two “superpowers” of American history, Greater New England (which extends westward into the Upper Great Lakes) and the Deep South (which spread across the far southern lowlands from Charleston to Corpus Christi). Yankee Puritans and Carolina slave lords disagreed on most everything – religion, public education, popular participation in politics, even the meaning of concepts like “freedom” or “liberty” – and their elected representatives still disagree on these things today. For more than 300 years, they’ve done battle with one another for control of the federal government and, in a sense, the nation’s soul, building political coalitions with the other cultures in attempt to overpower the other.
The current coalitions have been stable for many decades. The Deep South has built a strong alliance with Greater Appalachia (encompassing the highlands from southern Pennsylvania to the Hill Country of Texas) and the Tidewater country (the Chesapeake country and neighboring sections of Delaware and North Carolina), and a shakier one with the interior West. Their agenda – to slash taxes, regulations, social services, and federal powers – is opposed by a Yankee led northern bloc that includes the populous Dutch-settled region around the Big Apple and a Yankee-influenced Pacific coastal strip extending from Monterey to Juneau, Alaska. The other cultures – the Quaker- and German-founded Midlands and Spanish bordlerlands among them – often hold the swing vote, be it a presidential election or a congressional vote on health care reform.
States dominated by the Deep South and its three allies have a virtual monopoly on capital punishment, accounting for 95 percent of the 1277 executions in the U.S. since 1976, including, of course, that of Mr. Davis. By contrast, the 12 states definitively controlled by the culture of Greater New England and the Dutch-founded region – states which account for almost a quarter of our population – have executed just one person in that time period, and only one of them (Connecticut) retains the death penalty today.
These stark differences are rooted in the distinct historical experiences of these cultures. For instance, scholars have long noted that slave-state cultures (pre-1865 Deep South and Tidewater) greatly rely on violence to control, punish, and terrorize. In Greater Appalachia – a region settled by people from the war-torn, often lawless borderlands of Scotland and Ulster – there has always been a strong emphasis placed on personal honor and in not relying on official government organs, even to mediate conflicts and mete out justice. The religious traditions of both regions emphasize “eye for an eye” justice and the wrathful nature of God. As a result, these cultures have fewer qualms about rushing to lethal judgments. They accounted for nine-tenths of all U.S. lynchings between 1889 and 1918, and over sixty percent of all executions in the same period.
By contrast, the Puritan tradition of Greater New England emphasized self-doubt and self-restraint, and its 19th century Unitarian and Congregational spiritual descendants came to believe vengeance would not receive the approval of an all-knowing God. As a result, it was the center of the death penalty reform movement in the 19th century, when states it dominated began eliminating capital punishment for burglary, robbery, sodomy, and other non-lethal crimes. Lynching was also extremely rare: from 1889 to 1918, only one took place in New England proper and 15 in the ten states this culture dominates, or less than 0.5 percent of the total. (Only one victim was black.)
The new findings – and Mr. Davis’ execution – should prompt a renewed public debate about the death penalty, and whether the criminal justice system can truly be counted on not to condemn innocent people to death. If that happens, expect it to follow these regional fault lines; just about everything in our history has.