The debate over the Constitution’s meaning, pitting originalists against living constitutionalists, has raged for decades. And nowhere has that debate played out more dramatically than in the context of America’s death penalty, with the U.S. Supreme Court hearing frantic, last-minute death-row appeals every term, as it will in this one.

The conventional wisdom is that America’s founders were gung-ho about capital punishment. But that is a myth. Although early U.S. laws authorized executions, the founders greatly admired a now little-known Italian writer, Cesare Beccaria, who fervently opposed capital punishment. They also were fascinated by the penitentiary system’s potential to eliminate cruel punishments.

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