Does being American mean susceptibility to manipulation? This paper will analyse how the audience, purpose and context of a piece of writing affects the presentation of its argument. It will do so by analysing William Baude’s New York Times article concerning the legality of the death penalty, to argue that Baude plays on the patriotism, idealism and rationality of his specifically American audience to support the continuing use of the death penalty.

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Baude’s target audience is specifically American, and as such Baude is able to appeal to American ideals of patriotism, justice, and rationality. Baude uses emotive words such as ‘misguided’, ‘assumption’, and ‘claims’ (Baude, 2015, n.p.) to imply that both attacks on the court decision in question lack a rational approach to the constitution. At the same time, he talks about ‘the lesson of another constitutional amendment’ (Baude, 2015, n.p.), thereby signalling his own extensive knowledge and understanding of the constitution, and appealing to his reader’s patriotic belief in its authority in shaping American law. Finally, when he writes that a decision is ‘best left to the states and the people’ (Baude, 2015, n.p.), Baude is appealing to the American democratic ideal of justice as dispensed by individuals rather than officials. Overall, Baude is using the sensibilities of his American target audience to gain support for his argument.

Although Baude appears to be presenting a balanced argument showing both sides of the debate, closer examination reveals that his purpose is to support the continued use of the death penalty. In the first place, Baude begins by explaining the problems with Justice Scalia’s support for the death penalty. He concludes his analysis of these problems with phrases such as ‘Justice Scalia is surely correct’ and ‘may well turn out to be right’ (Baude, 2015, n.p.); although these phrases are less positive when placed in the context of the paragraph, they nevertheless leave readers with an impression that this argument, although flawed, is probably sound. In contrast, Baude discusses the problems with Justice Breyer’s suggestion of abolishing the death penalty second. In examining this suggestion last, Baude ensures that his rejection of this position is what will remain in the reader’s mind at the end of the article. Finally, Baude also switches to using the inclusive first person plural, writing ‘we should not be too quick to embrace Justice Breyer’s thinking’ and ‘if we reject’ (Baude, 2015, n.p.). By doing this, Baude encourages readers to include themselves in his point of view, which he goes on to explain wholly ‘rejects’ Breyer’s suggestion. Baude’s purpose in writing has therefore shaped both the structure and lexis of his article, further manipulating the point of view of his target audience.

This article forms part of a larger context concerning the authority of secular law versus the moral sensibilities of the American public, and of the global/international public. By naming the issue as ‘contentious’ (Baude, 2015, n.p.), Baude not only piques the interest of his readers, he also appeals to their awareness of this wider context, in which members of the American public seek to influence secular law according to their own moral agendas. Interestingly, however, Baude makes no reference to the issue of the death penalty outside of the United States, despite the conviction in many other western countries that it is unlawful and immoral. In ignoring this wider context in favour of a focus on the specifically American constitutional issues, Baude zeros in on his target audience, and limits the contextual scope of his argument, thereby eliminating other counterarguments from the discussion. Baude’s presentation of the context of the issue he presents is shaped by his awareness of his audience, and of their interests and values.
As can be seen from the evidence above, William Baude’s apparently rational argument in fact manipulates the values held by his specifically American audience in order to suggest that the continuing use of the death penalty is the only rational and just option.

  • Baude, William (2015, July 7). “Is the Death Penalty Unconstitutional?” New York Times. Retrieved from