Billy Budd, Sailor
Billy Budd should be unequivocally found not guilty. This is not to suggest that Billy Budd isn’t culpable in Claggart’s death; without question he is. Nor would my vote of not guilty be meant to suggest that Billy escape all responsibility for his transgression. But to find Billy Budd guilty of a capital offense simply to retain allegiance to proscribed rules of conduct is to remove all the moral value behind those rules.
The digressive intrusion into the story of the events surrounding the mutiny at Nore provides a thematic underscore to my ruling. Under the strict charter of the Mutiny Act, those men would have been executed. And yet, having done so the result would have been many of those mutineers failing to act patriotically at Trafalgar. The point is that a capital punishment for any crime is irrefutable and allows for no opportunity for redemption. This is especially disheartening considering the circumstances of Claggart’s death which at best could be described as aggravated manslaughter rather than murder.
But the real issue is not capital punishment, but rather blind adherence to codified law. At one point Vere explains that the ship’s law proceeds from the Mutiny Act and then goes on to assert that the Mutiny Act is in the same spirit as war. War must have certain rules that are abided by or else there will be anarchy. But war as an idea-as opposed to a practice-is always immoral. Law as an idea-as opposed to a practice-is always moral. It is decidedly immoral for the British Navy to press men into service against their will. To allow them to do so will only result in further abuse. Obviously, there is no such thing as perfection in the law, but above all else the law should seek commitment to morality rather than to the letter of convenience.
It is convenience that costs Billy Budd his life. Capt. Vere may express deep concern over the larger morality at stake in condemning him to death, but if the Captain had refused he would be the one on trial. Vere’s decision is not to sacrifice Billy to the code of military law, but to sacrifice him to save his own neck-expressed in his final guilt-laden words. And that is ultimately why Billy must be found not guilty. To find him guilty for the sake of convenience will only result in propagation of immoral reluctance to question the authority of the Mutiny Act. Any Navy or military exists only to preserve the state which it serves; if in that service it violates the very moral foundations upon which the state finds a military necessary to preserve, then anarchy already exists. Condemning Billy Budd to death, then, is not an act that safeguards the integrity of the naval system, it is an act which promotes institutionalized disorder.