Virginia adopted this provision of the English Bill of Rights in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, and the Virginia convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution recommended in 1788 that this language also be included in the Constitution.
Virginians such as George Mason and Patrick Henry wanted to ensure that this restriction would also be applied as a limitation on Congress. Mason warned that, otherwise, Congress may “inflict unusual and severe punishments.”
Henry emphasized that Congress could otherwise depart from precedent: "What has distinguished our ancestors?--That they would not admit of tortures, or cruel and barbarous punishment. But Congress may introduce the practice of the civil law, in preference to that of the common law. They may introduce the practice of France, Spain, and Germany...."
Ultimately, Henry and Mason prevailed, and the Eighth Amendment was adopted. James Madison changed "ought" to "shall", when he proposed the amendment to Congress in 1789.
In Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), Justice Brennan wrote, "There are, then, four principles by which we may determine whether a particular punishment is 'cruel and unusual'."
The "essential predicate" is "that a punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity," especially torture.
"A severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion."
"A severe punishment that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society."
"A severe punishment that is patently unnecessary."
Justice Brennan also wrote that he expected no state would pass a law obviously violating any one of these principles, so court decisions regarding the Eighth Amendment would involve a "cumulative" analysis of the implication of each of the four principles.
In this way, the United States Supreme Court "set the standard that a punishment would be cruel and unusual [,if] it was too severe for the crime, [if] it was arbitrary, if it offended society's sense of justice, or if it was not more effective than a less severe penalty."
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