By Reed Kristovich
Herman Melville’s short story Billy Budd addresses the themes of law, executive power, and the balance between them. The common fear shared by those in power is a loss of control. Those who desire a break from control will ruin stability for all others; a stability that once lost is difficult to recollect. The isolation of the ship in Billy Budd, the Bellipotent and the threat of a mutiny on board emphasizes the dangers of loss of control. In such a remote and concentrated setting, order must be maintained to insure the safety of all.
Billy Budd, pressed into serving on the Bellipotent, is illustrated as an innocent and well-liked character known as the “Handsome Sailor.” He was good at his job, friendly with the crew, and posed a threat to no one. Being an honorable and good-natured man, Billy Budd was distressed and agitated when Claggart accused him of trying to instigate a mutiny. Instead of defending himself, Billy Budd is overtaken by frustration and desperation and resorts to the basic human instinct of self-preservation. He hits his accuser, killing Claggart with a single blow.
The difficult matter of executive power and justice rests in the hands of Captain Vere. As the leader of the ship, Captin Vere’s main responsibility is the safety of his men and conducting justice. Ideally, justice is blind and those who commit crimes must be punished for them. Captain Vere must undertake the difficult task of upholding justice and exercising executive power to maintain order on the ship.
After witnessing Claggart’s murder, Captain Vere immediately calls together a tribunal to discuss Billy’s fate. With an accusation of mutiny presented by Claggart, Vere’s personal judgment was forced aside and his role of captain made paramount. Whether Billy Budd was planning a mutiny or not, he needed to be punished for Claggart’s murder. If the ship’s captain appeared to show favoritism or weakness in the face of handing down justice, it could have been disastrous for the sense order on the ship. It was Captain Vere’s duty as the executive and the enforcer to use Billy Budd’s crime as a warning to those threatening to disrupt the law and order on the Bellipotent. Although he liked Billy Budd for his good work ethic and kind demeanor, he did not show favoritism in the proceedings. Captain Vere did not allow his personal opinion of Billy Budd to interfere with the execution of justice. Billy Bud was punished for murder in keeping with the naval code of laws to which all on the ship are subjected.
Knowing that lawlessness leads to chaos and destruction, Captain Vere makes the difficult decision to use his executive power to bring immediate justice to Billy and avoid the danger of a mutiny. Captain Vere convicted Billy for killing another man, a choice he had to make to maintain order on the Bellipotent. His choice was not a popular one, but it was necessary to maintain justice and order.