by Herman Melville. Originally published, 1924. 160pp. Many editions available. Paper. $4.95. ISBN: 9781416523727.

Reviewed by Stephen A. Simon, Department of Political Science, University of Richmond, ssimon [at]


Herman Melville’s BILLY BUDD can serve as an excellent basis for discussions about fundamental questions in law and politics. For those (like myself) who somehow managed to avoid reading the story during high school or college, it may be best to begin with a very brief summary. Billy Budd is a young man impressed from a merchant ship in 1797 and made foretopman on the INDOMINATABLE – a warship in the British Navy. In a conversation with the Captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, the ship’s master-at-arms, Jon Claggart, accuses Budd of mutinous conspiracy. Skeptical of the accusations (given Budd’s easy-going and cheerful bearing), Captain Vere invites Claggart to make the accusations in Budd’s presence. Given the opportunity to rebut the accusations, Budd, who suffers from an inability to speak under duress, is unable to do so. Frustrated and angry, Budd strikes Claggart, killing him. Though believing Budd innocent of mutiny and free of any intent to kill Claggart, Vere quickly convenes a drumhead court to try Budd, who is convicted and hung the next morning.

One set of jurisprudential questions centers on the justice of Budd’s conviction and execution. Budd is an extraordinarily sympathetic character. He is happy-go-lucky, well-liked, and devoid of cynicism or ill will towards others. We know him to be innocent of the charges of mutiny. Claggart’s accusations are not only false but malicious, as Claggart is a man controlled by envy, determined to destroy Budd. Moreover, we know of Budd’s difficulty with speaking in times of great stress, and what greater stress than to be accused falsely to one’s face, with no warning, of a capital crime. In short, in purely moral terms, we may view Budd as the innocent party, and Claggart as the guilty one who receives his comeuppance. But then there is the fact, witnessed by the Captain himself, that Budd struck and killed a superior officer aboard a warship in plain contravention of enacted law.

This set of facts makes a good jumping off point for discussions about the relationship between human-made law and principles of justice that exist independently of convention. In addition, since the action centers on a trial decided by a three-judge panel, the story also provides a ready entree into the related question of how judges should interpret and apply the law. What considerations are relevant to the determination of Budd’s guilt or innocence? Does it matter that Budd may have been morally free of guilt? Are the judges entitled or obliged to consider the justice of Budd’s actions, or is their authority limited to strict application of the letter of the law? Nor must the reader conjure up these themes with imaginative interpretations of obscure text; Melville hand-delivers [*345] them. In describing the situation confronting Vere after Claggart's death, for example, Melville writes:

[I]nnocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd in effect changed places. . . The essential right and wrong involved in the matter, the clearer that might be, so much the worse for the responsibility of a loyal sea-commander inasmuch as he was not authorized to determine the matter on that primitive basis.

Thus, the story line serves well as the basis for discussion of fundamental questions in the philosophy of law. At the same time, BILLY BUDD also affords the opportunity to explore fundamental questions in political philosophy. This additional layer of questions is opened up by the manner in which the chief characters are described. Budd, who is compared to Adam before the fall, brings to mind that familiar figure of modern philosophy – the human being in a pre-political state of nature. Of course, different philosophers have written this character differently – Budd is in many respects more like the one we meet in Rousseau's DISCOURSE ON THE ORIGIN OF INEQUALITY AMONG MEN than the one to which Hobbes introduces us in LEVIATHAN. Budd is, for example, neither fearful nor fearsome; rather than inclining to strife, Budd's mere presence brings peace and tranquility. The notion that Budd stands outside civilization is suggested in a number of ways, including repeated animalistic descriptions: “Of self-consciousness he seemed to have little or none, or about as much as we may reasonably impute to a dog of Saint Bernard’s breed.” Though unable to read, Budd "could sing, and like the illiterate nightingale was sometimes the composer of his own song." Budd, too, is untouched by the corrupting influences of civilization: "Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.”

That Budd is taken from a ship called RIGHTS OF MAN and thrust into the highly regimented world of a warship, the INDOMINATABLE, provides opportunities to discuss the compromises made when individuals trade their natural liberty in return for the order promised by the establishment of government. The contrast between Budd and his new environment is striking. Immediately upon his arrival on the warship, Budd witnesses the flogging of a novice seaman who had been absent from his post. Budd is chastened by the event, determined never to suffer the same fate. A veteran seaman who befriends Budd ponders "what might eventually befall a nature like that, dropped into a world not without some man traps and against whose subtleties simple courage lacking experience and address and without any touch of defensive ugliness is of little avail."

The character of Captain Vere also represents fascinating contrasts with Budd. Where Budd knows nothing of his parents or origins, Vere comes from nobility. Where Budd is illiterate, Vere is a contemplative intellectual who loves reading about history and philosophy. Where Budd seems less an actual individual than a symbol of primitive humanity, Vere is the embodiment of political order and strict application of enacted law. He brooks no delay in trying and executing Budd. At the trial, [*346] he persuades the judges to consider nothing beyond the bare facts of the matter – that Budd’s fist caused Claggart’s death – since the applicable law places no weight on intent. Sensing the judges’ moral qualms about convicting Budd of a capital crime, Vere argues:

But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow-creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so? -- Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent. Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature. But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King.

Vere can also be seen as representing public order and the general welfare pitted against Budd, the individual. When the court raises the possibility of mitigating Budd’s sentence, Vere counters by noting the potentially dangerous consequences of displaying weakness to the other sailors.

Adding even greater richness to the tale is the mutual respect that Vere and Budd show for each other. When Budd tells the court that Claggart’s charges of mutiny were unfounded, Vere jumps in to say “I believe you, my man," prompting Budd to reply "God will bless you for that, Your Honor!” In his last words before hanging, Budd proclaims “God bless Captain Vere,” and we are told that Vere’s last words before dying of a battle wound were simply “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.”

The story, then, opens the door to provocative questions at the broadest level about the nature and purposes of law and political community. What makes BILLY BUDD such an engaging way to approach these questions is that, in doing so, one can easily navigate between the “big” questions and more specific inquiries about the characters themselves. What is the significance of the fact that Budd and Vere seem to respect each other so deeply, despite their strikingly different characters, and Vere’s role in bringing about Budd’s hasty execution? Why does Claggart so detest Budd? If Budd represents primitive humanity and Vere civilization, then does Claggart represent the risks of corruption and arbitrary power inherent in the establishment of government? And how should we feel about Budd’s death? Does Budd’s execution amount to the unjust slaying of an innocent man? If so, does this injustice represent something vital that is inevitably sacrificed in the name of political order? The story also provides an easy entree into questions about criminal [*347] responsibility and the purposes of punishment. Can Budd’s homicide be justified on the grounds of self-defense, or excused on the grounds that the extraordinary circumstances led him to act essentially without volition? In a digressionary chapter of one page, Melville even alludes to the “intricacies involved in the question of moral responsibility; whether in a given case, say the crime proceeded from the mania in the brain or rabies in the heart.” Indeed, Vere’s own sanity is repeatedly drawn in question.

BILLY BUDD seems an especially good fit for courses on philosophy of law, but could also work well in any course addressing the range of questions noted, including, for example, criminal justice courses dealing with criminal responsibility, or any courses on constitutionalism or political thought that engage social contract theory or the tensions between enacted law and natural justice. In addition to its substantive content, two other features of BILLY BUDD make it well-suited for classroom use. First, as a novella well under a hundred pages, it makes for a remarkably efficient assignment. Second, the philosophical themes are readily accessible without having an expertise in Melville or in literature generally. Melville does not hide the ball, he throws it at your head.

I recently assigned BILLY BUDD in an undergraduate, seminar-style Political Science course on “Jurisprudence.” On the day we were slated to discuss the story in class, students were required to turn in a short (two-page) paper. The paper asked students, imagining themselves as a judge at Budd’s trial, to present arguments supporting either Budd’s innocence or guilt. The class discussion was one of the liveliest I have seen on any topic. Not only were the students thoroughly engaged in debating the immediate question concerning the verdict at Budd’s trial, but they also effectively connected the story with jurisprudential theories we had discussed earlier in the course, and raised additional issues beyond the more obvious “big” questions suggested by the story. One student, for example, contended that Budd was denied procedural justice because Vere effectively acted as both prosecutor and sole prosecution witness at the trial, while other students debated the extent to which the verdict should hinge on the exigent circumstances of a warship at sea. We spent a second class debating a set of discussion questions on the story. BILLY BUDD lends itself especially well to class discussion because the action centers on a dramatic trial, and because the text is abounding in juicy quotes. For instance, when Vere realizes that Budd has killed Claggart, he exclaims: “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” It not only marks a dramatic turning point, but encapsulates one of the story’s central tensions in twelve words, thus serving as a ready-made conversational starting point.

One cautionary note – the writing style can make for difficult reading at times. The flowing complexity of the sentences often rises to the level of high art, but other times is just plain hard to follow, at least for these eyes, and I suspect for many students as well. With the aim of preventing students from becoming discouraged with the story’s early chapters, when the connections with a law-related course have not yet become clear, I encouraged students to stick with the story until the “good parts,” at least from a jurisprudential standpoint. I think this may help to ensure students stay around long enough to be grabbed by the drama of Budd’s trial. With that one caveat, I highly recommend BILLY BUDD for use in the classroom for courses in law and politics, and especially for courses engaging questions about natural justice and positive law, social contract theory, and criminal responsibility.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Stephen A. Simon.