My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt

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SARASOTA, Fla.—Not for a long time has there been as much interest focused on the death penalty as there has been since Gov. Brown of California granted a last-minute reprieve to Caryl Chessman, who has managed to postpone his execution for a number of years.

This man and this case is perhaps a good one to have to consider, because there can be no particular sympathy for the man as an individual. He has made a fight for his life and, in doing so, has educated himself and probably become a very different person from the one who committed the crimes for which he is under sentence. Nevertheless, the crimes were of such a nature that they cannot stir much sympathy for Chessman as an individual. It is therefore possible to focus on the question of whether one believes in capital punishment or not.

From earliest days the death penalty, like any other punishment of a lesser nature, was intended to keep people from committing whatever the crime might be. The first question you ask, therefore, is: "Has capital punishment actually deterred people from committing the crimes which incur the death penalty?"

The answer is no. Some people commit such crimes in a moment of passion when there is no reflection as to the results that will ensue. In other cases it is almost always fear which brings about this type of crime; and when there is fear, there is no thought of possible consequence—it is the immediate fear that grips the mind of the person concerned.

And so we come to the question of justice. Capital punishment has been justified on the ground that if one takes life, one's own life should pay the price. The reasoning is that one commits a crime when one takes life because life is given us by a power greater than ourselves; and hence we are accountable for anything we do not primarily to another individual but to the author of life. It is not the physical part of man which is so important; it is that spark in him which raises him above the animals. Has any other human being the right to take that away in the name of justice?

Our knowledge of human beings is limited. We cannot know all about any other human being. For the protection of society, if a human being seems dangerous we have a right to limit his contacts and thus protect others from the danger. But I doubt if we have a right to take away a gift which we alone cannot give. For that reason I believe the movement against capital punishment is growing stronger in our country. It is a good thing to have people think about the problem at this time. I hope many people will give it serious reflection and come to the conclusion that I have—that human beings have no right to take each other's lives.

On Friday morning my secretary, Miss Corr, and I left New York by air and had a fairly good trip to Tampa, though we ran into a tropical storm just before landing which made us almost an hour late. Trouble with the plane's flaps twice forced us to return to Tampa after taking off, and I finally decided to drive to Sarasota because I was to speak there in the evening and it was getting late. It took so long to arrange for a car that I did not reach the Sarasota airport until 6:30 p.m. A few brave souls who had waited for our arrival escorted me immediately to the dinner where I was to speak, while Miss Corr took our belongings and went to my uncle, Mr. David Gray's home.

While we were at the dinner a telephone threat was received against me and one of the gentlemen present. Apparently the sheriffs of two counties were alerted, but we proceeded calmly with dinner and I was unaware of any of the excitement until the morning paper brought me the news. I can't say that such things disturb me much, but I am sorry that my uncle, who lives here and loves Sarasota and the South, has to be dragged in on any kind of disagreeable performance.



Names and Terms Mentioned or Referenced

  • Sarasota (Fla., United States) [ index ]

About this document

My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt, March 14, 1960

Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
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Digital edition created by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project The George Washington University 312 Academic Building 2100 Foxhall Road, NW Washington, DC 20007

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Transcription created from a photocopy of a UFS wire copy of a My Day column instance archived at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.