Hamilton also opposed the execution of Captain Charles Asgill of the First British Regiment of Foot, once slated to be executed in retaliation for the murder of another man, Joshua Huddy. Huddy, a New Jersey militia artillery captain boasted of personally hanging Tories, had been captured by the British in April 1782 and then turned over to a group of Tory civilians who placed him in the custody of Captain Richard Lippincott. Huddy was later hanged to avenge the “Cruel murders of our Brethren” including one Phillip White, a British loyalist who had been executed around the same time Huddy was taken into custody. Huddy’s body, with a note fastened to the chest reading “Up Goes Huddy for Philip White,” was left swinging from a tree as a warning to rebels. George Washington said of Huddy’s killing that “this instance of Barbarity…calls loudly for Retaliation,” with Washington calling Huddy’s death “the most wanton, unprecedented and unhuman Murder that has ever disgraced the arms of a civilized people.”
Patriot tempers flared to new heights after a British court-martial acquitted Captain Lippincott, the man who actually hanged Huddy on April 12, 1782. Lippincott, it was found in the adjudication, had simply been following orders, orders that had come from none other than Governor William Franklin, the estranged son of Benjamin Franklin who had sided with the British. Vexed that Lippincott had been cleared of wrongdoing and would not be punished, Washington ordered that one of his own brigadier generals, Moses Hazen, choose by lot a British officer to be executed.
Captain Asgill, a seventeen-year-old British officer captured at Yorktown and the son of a London alderman, was selected at random to be the sacrificial lamb. Although it looked for a time as if Asgill would be executed, Alexander Hamilton spoke up, saying that executing Asgill “will be derogatory to the national character.” “A sacrifice of this sort,” Hamilton said, “it entirely repugnant to the genius of the age we live in and is without example in modern history nor can it fail to be considered in Europe as wanton and unnecessary.” To make matters worse, Washington in the articles of capitulation had guaranteed the safety of prisoners taken captive at Yorktown. “[S]o Solemn and deliberate a sacrifice of the innocent for the guilty,” Hamilton said, “must be condemned on the present received notions of humanity, and encourage an opinion that we are in…a state [of] barbarism.”
Henry Knox, one of George Washington’s favorite officers, agreed. “My sentiments on frequent executions at this or any other period,” he told Hamilton, “are very similar to yours.” “I am persuaded,” Knox said, that “dispassionate and enlightened minds” would be convinced “that executions have been too frequent, under the color of the Laws of the different states and they hereafter will be recited to sully the purity of our cause.” After Captain Lippincott’s acquittal, James Madison told Edmund Randolph that, with regard to “selecting” an “innocent” officer, Washington “seems to lean to the side of compassion but asks the direction of Congress.” “What that will be,” Madison said, had yet to be determined. Negotiations over Asgill’s fate continued until the fall of 1782, when at Washington’s urging Congress decided to release Asgill, who had become a cause célèbre after his mother, Lady Asgill, pled for her son’s life.
John Bessler, Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment
Behold, my ancient Bessler photographic enlarger! I was given this from my dad’s darkroom when he moved to another state, since he wasn’t planning on setting up a darkroom again. It’s in storage right now, but it’s a champion old machine.
Supposedly, it came from a battleship! It has markings indicating that it was part of the General Dynamics Electric Boat Inventory of 1966, but I can find no model number or designation to find more information on it. It looks like the progenitor of the Bessler 23C (of which I have seen in countless places, and used a handful of times). But I would argue that mine is one-of-a-kind, and I intend to bring it back to former glory at some point in the next few years and use it as it was used for many decades. They built this thing like a tank… or a battleship, I guess.