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Fun Punishments of Colonial America

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 11973

We often cringe when we hear how given cultures punish criminals and "alleged" criminals. Maybe, we don't like how our parents discipline us. Study the history of punishment and decide what's "right"!


United States

learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Do these punishments look cruel and unusual to you?

historical punishments

Images by Frank Hazenplug from "Curious Punishments of Bygone Days," via Wikimedia Commons, are in the public domain.

Nowadays, the government only has a limited range of punishments it can apply for crimes committed.

There are many different fines, for example, from a simple parking ticket up to very severe fines for tax evasion and other crimes. Jail time is one of the common punishments. Many states allow the death penalty for the most serious crimes of all, usually involving murder. Even in that most serious class of crimes, judges can't choose whatever punishment they want; there is a limited range of possible methods of execution, with lethal injection being by far the most common one today.

It wasn't always this way in America. In fact, prior to the writing of the Bill of Rights, colonies and local governments took great liberty with the kinds of punishments they dealt and the crimes for which they dealt them.

The Eighth Amendment, the portion of the Bill of Rights that limits the kinds of punishment available to the government, is short and sweet: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

How do we know when a certain form of punishment is cruel and unusual, and why was it necessary to add this to the Bill of Rights to begin with? Let's learn more about the Eighth Amendment and its background.

  1. Read The Meaning of "Cruel and Unusual Punishment", by Micah Schwartzbach, courtesy of Nolo, about the Eighth Amendment. As you read, write down answers to the following:
  • To what kinds of practices was the Eighth Amendment a response?
  • What was an earlier law used as a model for the Eighth Amendment?
  • What are two different possible ways to interpret the Eight Amendment today?
  1. Share your discoveries with your parent or teacher and discuss the following questions:
  • What should be the purpose of punishment: preventing others from committing crimes, getting revenge on criminals for their misdeeds, meting out justice, or reforming criminals' behavior so they can re-join society? Why?
  • Should the government be allowed to impose whatever punishment it wants on criminals? Why or why not?
  • How do you think the interpretation of cruel and unusual punishment has evolved over time?

As it turns out, the Founding Fathers had a good reason to include the Eighth Amendment in the Bill of Rights: they had a clear memory of the not-so-distant colonial past.

In the Got It? section, research some of the creative and frightening ways some of the early colonists punished law-breakers.

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