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Sacco and Vanzetti Case in “After the Fact” by Davidson et al. Research Paper

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The Main Historical Questions Raised by Davidson and Lytle in Chapter 11 “Sacco and Vanzetti”

The case of Sacco and Vanzetti is considered to be one of the most controversial in the history of the United States. For more than eighty years the case was discussed by historians and writers from different perspectives. At different times, the case raised different historical questions. The authors of different books and studies discussed if the two men were guilty or not, how the civil right of Americans and emigrants suffer during the period of social unrest after World War I and provided different points of view on the question of anarchism. The chapter in the book After the Fact: The Art of Historical written by Davidson and Lytle provides a new perspective on the issue.

The authors raise an important question of “two nations” and the conflict between them. The case provoked many controversies both in American and international societies. According to the author’s point of view, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti symbolizes the conflict between “two nations”. The authors also raise ethical issues of the case. The work by Davidson and Lytle also was written under the influence of contemporary issues, such as Global political actions, injustice, prejudice, and the attitudes towards emigrants in contemporary America and Europe. In general, The Sacco-Vanzetti case has become a symbol of American injustice and prejudice, and it continues to be controversial to this day” (Gilligan 2008, p. 1).

The text of “Sacco and Vanzetti” is a detailed description of the background and trials that took almost seven years. The aim of the authors is not only to provide “clear” facts of the case but discuss social, political, and cultural issues that contributed to the conflict of “two nations” living in the United States. The first “nation” were Native Americans and the other consisted of immigrants. Providing the analysis of this conflict, the authors focus on the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, “two Italian immigrants living on the fringe of American society” and discuss the question of how they “had become the focus of a debate that brought the nation’s cherished legal institutions under attack?” (Davidson & Lytle 2009, p. 281).

After World War I, many immigrants came to America to find freedom and independence. For many Native Americans, the immigrants presented a treat to established traditions and values. Thus, even with strong supporting alibis and evidence of numerous witnesses, the two men were found guilty in a crime that they might not commit.

Different sources provide different perspectives on the issue. Having done a critical analysis of several books and studies that were written at different times after Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, we can see that “the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti produce as much art as action” (Bercovitch, 2003 p. 127). The first records of the trials were published in 1928 and the main issue discussed was the guilty or guiltlessness of the two men. Furthermore, the authors moved the focus on political issues of the case and later, on social and cultural. At any rate, “Sacco and Vanzetti endured a long series of hearings, trials, and appeals. By the time they were finally executed, on August 23, 1927, they had become national symbols” (Bercovitch, 2003 p. 126).

Providing the historiographical approach to the text, and to the case as well, it should be mentioned that it “opens” a new page in the interpretation of the case. In general, the debates around the trials began in 1927, even before the execution, until today, when there appear new subjects for debate. It all began with the letters by Sacco and Vanzetti they wrote in the prison that make them national heroes and symbols of the injustice of the American judicial system.

Sacco wrote, “Not even a sheep-killing dog would have been found guilty by an American Jury on the evidence produced against us” (Sacco, Vanzetti, Frankfurter & Jackson 1997, p. 286). These letters were a major push to the discussion of Sacco and Vanzetti’s innocence. Another significant work devoted to the protection of two men was Boston by Upton Sinclair. He was sure that Sacco and Vanzetti became victims of injustice and prejudice. He writes about Vanzetti that:

“he suffered more with other people’s pains than with his own. When he half-carried a shuddering body off the picket-line and washed a torn and bloody scalp with a basin of water and a rag, the tears ran down his cheeks, and his hands shook.” (Sinclair 1928, p. 76).

During the next 30 years, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti became the basis for many poems, books, and plays that regarded the two Italian men as victims of the justice system.

Another turn in the interpretation of the case took place in the 1960s when Robert H. Montgomery wrote his Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth. It made the historians look at the case in a different context. Montgomery wrote, “Sacco and Vanzetti had a fair trial, and the case would never have become a cause célèbre unless the Reds had made it one” (Montgomery 1960, p. 347). Thus, the historian’s views were divided into two extremes: on the one hand, some authors still believed in the innocence of the Italians and claimed that they were victims of the anti-radical movement, on the other hand, other historians believed that the two men were guilty and they deserved the death penalty.

In the 1980s, Brian Jackson’s The Black Flag: A Look Back at the Strange Case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti provided new perspectives on the case. The author did not claim any idea, he just showed the facts as they were, thus people were free to choose what they wanted to believe. He wrote, “I have presented the facts as dispassionately as I can, and the reader is free to make his judgment.”( Jackson 1981, p. 90).

In the 1990s another side of the case was in the focus of historians and writers: “For a time the Sacco and Vanzetti case – the most famous of its kind in the history of the United States – almost pulled reformers, writers, artists, and prewar suffragists into a concerted political force” (Minter, 1996 p. 98). The question of anarchism came into being, Sacco and Vanzetti and their cause ceased to be a matter of interest primarily to anarchists and other left-wing radicals” (Sacco, Vanzetti and the Historian, n. d., p. 2). The two men were the participants of the Red Scare and they stood their ground until the end. Thus, they were punished not only for the crime but for their political view and ethnicity.

The text by Davidson and Lytle provides a new interpretation of the case from a social, political, and cultural perspective. They raise the ethical issues of the case and can serve as a basis for a new “generation” of debates about the causes and effects of the Sacco and Vanzetti case:

  • “Sacco and Vanzetti had forced the nation to ask who in their times best embodied the principles of freedom and equality inherited from 1776. Perhaps neither historians nor lawyers can resolve that question to the satisfaction of a divided nation” (Davidson & Lytle 2009, p. 281)

Recent historical events and political situations also influenced the main idea of the writing. The conflict between representatives of different nations in the United States still takes place. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti was the first one that shed light on the problem:

  • “Sacco and Vanzetti’s affair presents us with many eerie and sobering correlations to the present. Global political action, terrorism, justice and injustice, jingoism, xenophobia, radicalism, and the treatment of immigrants and minorities in both the United States and Europe are topics as central in our days as they were Sacco and Vanzetti’s” (Sacco, Vanzetti and the Historian, p. 8).

Consequently, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti still provides many subjects for debates. These days, new perspectives on the issue are to be discussed by modern historians. Davidson and Lytle opened a new question that is relevant to the contemporary social relations in the United States, as well as in the world as a whole.

An Unresolved Historical Question Raised by Davidson and Lytle in Sacco and Vanzetti

Introduction

Sacco and Vanzetti’s case produced many debates over the last eighty years. During this time, historians and writers debated over many questions concerning the case. One of the main questions is whether the Italians were guilty of the crime and what was the main reason for their execution. As times changed, the perspectives on the issue were influenced by different social and political events. The current cultural and social conflicts that still exist in the society of the United States provide a new point of view on the case.

This point of view was interpreted in the text by Davidson and Lytle “Sacco and Vanzetti”. The authors discussed the details of the trials and interpreted the issue in the context of political and social problems that appeared in American society in the aftermath of World War I. However, focusing on the conflict of two nations, the authors did not provide a solution to the question if Sacco and Vanzetti had to be found guilty in a crime that they might have not committed.

Thus, the research question of this study is the unresolved historical question that deals with the problem of whether the Italians had to be punished for the crime in which they were convicted.

Research objectives

To solve this question, we have analyzed several historical and literary texts that were written in different times and discussed different aspects of the case, because “much has been written about the injustice of the case against Sacco and Vanzetti a textbook case of police, prosecutorial, and judicial misconduct” (Hanson 2000, n. p.) The primary sources The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti, Montgomery’s Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth, Davidson, J. W. & Lytle, M. H. After the Fact. The Art of Historical Detection and Sinclair, U. Boston. The authors of these sources put in the focus the main causes of the trials and face the question of guiltiness of the men. Davidson and Lytle provide that, “Sacco and Vanzetti’s case raised serious doubts about the tradition of Anglo- Saxon justice so venerated in the United States” (Davidson & Lytle 2009, p. 281).

Bercovitch and Minter analyze the literary texts that took the case as a basis for their stories. The authors provide that the main idea of the texts was to show the innocence of the two men and emphasize the injustice of society and the judicial system.

Such sources as Banner and Jackson discuss the case in the historical context. Banner (2002) writes that “in the years before World War I, capital punishment was up for grabs and as legislatures pondered abolishment, the actual use of the death penalty began to decline” (p. 223). However, the men were still executed and the authors see the reason for social unrest that was in the country after World War I. Several research Newby, Sacco-Vanzetti Case”, and “Sacco, Vanzetti, and the Historian” provide discussions of general opinions about Sacco and Vanzetti case and discuss the case as a public affair, “historians have so far missed one of the most important elements of the Sacco and Vanzetti story: its dramatic transformation from the criminal case to the public affair” (Sacco, Vanzetti and the Historian, n. d., p. 2).

Newby provides that most of the works on the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, especially in the years after the execution, were focused on judicial injustice, “virtually, all comments on the case in serious historic and cultural studies as well as in reference works define it as judicial murder or, at the mildest, as a miscarriage of justice” (Newby 2006, p. 539). Thus, we can see that there was no profound research that would provide strong and unquestionable facts that Sacco and Vanzetti had to be punished, there is still controversy in this issue.

To analyze the question we used the method of historical research, data collection, and critical analysis of the literature written at different times. The methods provided the opportunity to look at the issue from historical, social, political, and cultural perspectives.

Literature Review

The research shows that there is not one general point of view about the innocence of the Italian people. Different sources provide different opinions. Some of the studies argue that the men were not guilty and their execution was used as an instrument of the anti-radicalism movement because Sacco and Vanzetti were participants of the Red Scare and promoted atheism. Moreover, there is an opinion that the results of the ballistic expertise were falsified. On the other hand, some sources provide that the sentence was justified and Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty of the crime.

Davidson and Lytle focus on the ethics of the case and interpret it as a result of the conflict that flared up between “two nations”: immigrants and Native Americans. Thus, the authors do don pay much attention if Sacco and Vanzetti deserved capital sentence and what could be if the sentence would not be executed.

Conclusion

Thus, the question concerning the punishment and its justification is still unresolved and deserves further exploration. Several resources about the case of Sacco and Vanzetti provide a solid foundation for the research. Davidson and Lytle’s text is one of the most reliable sources that present facts and background of the case and can be used when deciding a research question.

Annotated Bibliography

Banner, S. (2002). The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

The book provides a detailed analysis of the history of the death punishments in the United States. The history begins in the 17th century. The author provides describes the policies of death punishments in different states of the country and people’s attitudes towards them. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the death punishments were public, and in the 19th century, they became more secular. The author also provides a critic of the executions in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Bercovitch, S. (2003). The Cambridge History of American Literature: Prose writing, 1910-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The book is an account of canonical texts as popular prose. It contains the literary works of the post World War I period that provides a literary history of the type. The text contains stories about real historical figures, such as Sacco and Vanzetti, and works that were inspired by their story.

Davidson, J. W. & Lytle, M. H. (2009). After the Fact. The Art of Historical Detection (6th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

The book presents the 15 most famous and controversial events from the history of the United States. The texts in the book are a mixture of historical facts and literary narration which makes them easy to read and understand.

Jackson, B. (1981). The Black Flag: A Look Back at the Strange Case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

This book is an independent look at the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. The author presents a detailed description of the events that took place at the time. The reader is free to choose whether two men were guilty or not.

Hanson, D. C. (2002). Sacco and Vanzetti: Martyrs for “the Idea”. Web.

The source provides information on the political view of both men. It describes the political basis of their case and provides a brief description of the biographies of two men and their anarchist position and relation to the Red Scare. The author provides the idea that the case was an attempt by the government to crush the anarchist movement.

Minter, D. (1996). A Cultural History of the American Novel: Henry James to William Faulkner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The book provides a review of the novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which were focused on historical events that took place at the time. The works provide a close cultural analysis of the events that influenced the political and social view of Americans and had great meaning for the development of the history of the country.

Montgomery, R. H. (1960). Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth. New York: The Devin-Adair Company.

After several decades of discussion of the case of Sacco and Vanzetti with one question “Were they guilty or not?”, this book provided new questions to the case. The author of the book presents Sacco and Vanzetti, not as victims of injustice and prejudice (as they were considered to be), but provides the opinion that their arrest was justified and that they deserved the penalty.

Newby, R. (2006). Kill Now, Talk Forever: Debating Sacco and Vanzetti. AuthorHouse.

The book provides the collection of critical remarks on the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, the transcript of the trial, and debates that were around the case 80 years after the execution.

” (2007). Web.

The source provides the interpretation of the Sacco and Vanzetti case in a historical and social context. The source provides information on the world’s response to this case and how its outcomes influenced the social opinion about working American democracy. It also provides the historians’ focus on the case and its legal, social, and cultural dimensions.

“Sacco, Vanzetti and the Historian”. Web.

The source provides a new perspective on the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. The author discusses it from the political, social, and cultural point of view. The author compares the case of Sacco and Vanzetti with the Dreyfus affair and provides the analysis of those two cases and their impact on the position of the United States in the world arena.

Sacco, N., Vanzetti, B., Frankfurter, M. D., & Jackson, G. (1997). The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti. New York: Penguin Books.

It is a collection of original letters written by Nicolas Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in prison before their execution. The book was originally published in 1928. The text presented in the book still presents the material for analysis for historians all over the world.

Sinclair, U. (1928). Boston New York: Albert & Charles Boni.

It was one of the first books that depicted the case of Sacco and Vanzetti in form of the novel. Sinclair was an advocate of Sacco and Vanzetti and he described their story dramatically. The novel presents true events mixed with fiction.

Reference List

Banner, S. (2002). The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bercovitch, S. (2003). The Cambridge History of American Literature: Prose writing, 1910-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davidson, J. W. & Lytle, M. H. (2009). After the Fact. The Art of Historical Detection (6th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Jackson, B. (1981). The Black Flag: A Look Back at the Strange Case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Hanson, D. C. (2002). Sacco and Vanzetti: Martyrs for “the Idea”. Web.

Minter, D. (1996). A Cultural History of the American Novel: Henry James to William Faulkner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Montgomery, R. H. (1960). Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth. New York: The Devin-Adair Company.

Newby,R. (2006). Kill Now, Talk Forever: Debating Sacco and Vanzetti. AuthorHouse.

“Sacco-Vanzetti Case” (2007). Web.

“Sacco, Vanzetti and the Historian”. Web.

Sacco, N., Vanzetti, B., Frankfurter, M. D., & Jackson, G. (1997). The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti. New York: Penguin Books.

Sinclair, U. (1928). Boston New York: Albert & Charles Boni.

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