The road to the abolition of the death penalty has been a long one, and whatever one thinks about the total abolition of that penalty there are cases that have come along from the start that illustrate it's questionable results. But in the 18th Century (at least when the century began up to the events of this case) hanging was not condemned by the British public. To begin with, hangings were public affairs (not like current executions which are in special cells or prisons), and were occasions of truly riotous behavior. In fact sometimes it was deadly. In 1807 thirty people were crushed to death at a double hanging of two murderers in London when a crowd panicked. The festival-like noise of the public hangings horrified a few people. The Quakers were early protesters. But they were met by two arguments which (for all their defects) most people accepted: 1) the large crowds were a comfort to most of the doomed defendants, who saw many friendly faces in the crowds watching their shameful deaths; 2) the public was supposedly given a unique moral lesson watching the hanging - a reminder of the potential cost of life to anyone who dared to break the laws of the land.
Despite an occasional historic trial and death of the past (Mary, Queen of Scotts, the two wives of King Henry VIII, King Charles I, Sir Thomas More) where one could argue that some clemency should have been shown, most people in 1757 argued that the system was fair and just. The five cases I just mentioned were all treason cases, so they were grim matters of state policy and exceptions to the normal. But then the events of the Byng Case came up - and the massive support for the death penalty began to crack.
This third episode of ON TRIAL, like the others, I have never seen. So I can't judge the actual episode's performances (although I see that Sir Donald Wolfit played Admiral John Byng - although a bit florid at times, Wolfit was actually one of the best actors of his generation). The story though is an interesting example of political scapegoating at it's worst.
Byng had risen to Vice Admiral in the Georgian navy, and was a capable officer but not of "Nelson" or "Farragut" distinction. By luck of the draw he was sent to take command of a fleet that was supposed to lift a siege of the Meditteranean island of Minorca in 1756. England had just begun the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in the colonies) against France, and it was a French fleet that was threatening Minorca. Requests for assistance had been sent to England earlier from the troops in Minorca, but the idiots running the Government (the Duke of Newcastle and his brother - better known as the Pelham Brothers) dragged their feet before sending Byng. In any event, Byng did confront the French fleet. However (according to his best biographer, Dudley Pope in AT TWELVE MR. BYNG WAS SHOT) a combination of weather/wind conditions, and antiquated rules of warfare that British Admirals had to follow, prevented Byng from making more than a relatively token attack on the French before he had to break it off. Perhaps a Horatio Nelson or Lord Howe or Lord Cochrane would have done more - but those commanders were a bit more than merely competent like Byng.
The island of Minorca subsequently fell to the French. At this early stage of the war nothing was going well for the British, and so Byng was arrested and a court martial was held in which he was accused of cowardice. The government had been reorganized, and William Pitt the Elder was now in it, but he too felt that an example was needed. On some dubious evidence Byng was convicted. Taken to Portsmouth harbor, the unfortunate Admiral was shot to death by a firing squad on his flagship's quarterdeck. In Switzerland Voltaire was writing CANDIDE, and included a famous brief scene where Candide witnesses the tragedy of Byng, and asks why he was shot. He's told by an onlooker it was to encourage the other admirals to fight harder.
Public opinion was shaken by the Byng Affair. Knowing how inept the Pelhams had been, most people realized that Minorca was lost due to the lack of speed in rushing aid to the island. Byng's arguments about the rule book he had to follow made sense too. For the first time in then modern times the public was not really in favor of an execution. But they had little effect on the government's policy. Still it was a step forward. Within twenty years, in the execution of the Perreau Brothers and later the execution of Reverend William Dodd (all three for forgery) massive public petition drives tried to stop those executions. It is with Admiral Byng's fate that the public started questioning the death penalty, for better or worse. In this case I think it was for the better.
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