In the meanwhile the public opinion was ripening by time, by reflection, and by the example of Pensylva, where labor on the highways had been tried without approbation [approval] from 1786 to 89. & had been followed by their Penitentiary system on the principle of confinement and labor, which was proceeding auspiciously. In 1796. our legislature resumed the subject and passed the law for amending the Penal laws of the commonwealth.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders give people enough time.
This excerpt is on the same subject used in the previous post but illustrates a different point.
In the late 1770s, Virginia had decided on hard labor on public projects as appropriate punishment for crimes that had previously been punished by death. Pennsylvania had a similar plan, and it seemed reasonable. Later evidence from that state proved otherwise, that public demeaning did not rehabilitate criminals but made them worse. Virginia was likely experiencing the same result.
Virginian’s support for hard labor in public probably had been enthusiastic. Doing away with hard labor may have faced their opposition. Giving convicts labor to perform within a prison complex, perhaps seen as not harsh enough, might have lacked public support, as well.
Virginia’s legislature would not change the law, because they lacked public support to do so. Pennsylvania’s example, however, was now proving that hard-labor-in-public did not work but labor- within-prison did.
Given 10-15 years, public opinion was changing. Leaders could now act with public support rather than opposition. Thus, Virginia’s laws were changed in 1796 to more humane treatment.
Jefferson later wrote concerning another matter, “Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities.” This example is one of waiting for public opinion to ripen in support of something new, rather than forcing it upon them before they were ready.