Threat, Deterrence, and Penal Severity: An Analysis of Flogging in the Royal Navy, 1740-1820

Patrick Underwood, Steven Pfaff, Michael Hechter

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Perceived threats to established social order can influence the willingness of those in authority to inflict punishments as well as the severity of those punishments. Our article explores that proposition in the case of summary punishment by flogging in the Royal Navy. In the Royal Navy commanders were given the power to inflict flogging for a host of offenses. Prevailing penal thinking emphasized general deterrence, whereby punishment of a few serious offenders would deter the body of seamen. Eighteenth-century reforms were intended to rationalize and normalize flogging and limit its severity. Qualitative evidence indicates that naval commanders saw the established order under attack after 1789 and, emphasizing moral offenses, imposed tighter discipline on their crews. The evidence we have assembled based on a randomly selected sample of ships between 1740 and 1820 shows that flogging aboard ships was moderate up until the Age of Revolution that began after 1789 but increased dramatically in its frequency and severity in the wake of the French Revolution. Multivariate analysis shows that greater penal severity is associated with several factors, including a period effect associated with the onset of the revolutionary age. Our findings are consistent with existing research that suggests that disorder influences the willingness to punish.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)411-439
Number of pages29
JournalSocial Science History
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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