Daniel LaChance, LAPA/Perkins Fellow; Emory University

The Old West and the New American Death Penalty

Tue, 02/25/2014
035 Robertson Hall, Princeton University
Event Category: 
By Invitation Only

Please join us for the second meeting of the Princeton/LAPA-Rutgers Criminal Justice Working Group, when Professor Daniel LaChance will present "The Old West and the New American Death Penalty."

The Criminal Justice Working Group is designed to bring together faculty and graduate students from both institutions to share work-in-progress, new ideas, and recent papers. Group participants may also invite scholars from other universities as presenters and commentators.

We invite all those interested in participating in the Criminal Justice Working Group to join the listserv that will keep you informed of the meetings.

Location:  Princeton University
Building and room to be announced.

Abstract: At the end of the twentieth century, advocates for capital punishment often spoke of law and executive bureaucracies as "systems" that were making good citizens vulnerable to crime. In two of the communities that used capital punishment the most, the pursuit of the death penalty against folk devils was imagined as a way for heroic individuals to reassert personal control over these emasculating systems, recuperating, in the process, a sense of freedom that had been lost in modern life. The sources I use to make this case are local newspaper portrayals of the district attorneys in two of the three counties that have executed the most offenders since 1977: Harris County, Texas and Oklahoma County, Oklahoma. In the local press, these men regularly embodied the possibility that feudal or state-of-nature virtues—masculine honor, radical independence, patriarchal clannishness, raw physical strength—could still flourish in a modern, rationalized, civilized world. The resulting vision of freedom these men embodied was not new. It echoed, in important respects, early twentieth century constructions of white manhood.

Daniel LaChance is an Assistant Professor of History at Emory University. LaChance earned his B.A. in English from Carleton College and his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His scholarship has focused, to date, on the sources, meaning, and implications of the "punitive turn" in the United States, the ratcheting up of incarceration and other forms of harsh punishment in the late 20'" century. In 2011, his dissertation, "Condemned to Be Free: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States, 1945-Present" won the University of Minnesota's Best Dissertation Award in the Arts and Humanities and was one of two finalists for the Distinguished Dissertation Award given by the National Council of Graduate Schools. The work, currently being revised for publication as a book by the University of Chicago Press, examines the ideas, myths, and forces that underlay the revival of the American death penalty in the last three decades of the twentieth century. It argues that distrust of the state's use of disciplinary forms of power played a crucial and under-examined role in the American demand for capital punishment. Amid a larger neoliberal transformation of the political, cultural, and economic landscape, discourse about capital punishment legitimized the state's withdrawal of its claim to being the central provider of social, economic, and personal security. At LAPA, LaChance plans to finish the revision of his book manuscript and embark on a new project, a legal, cultural, and intellectual history of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally disabled and the mentally ill in the United States.