Some remnants of the laws of an ancient conquering people, which a prince who reigned in Constantinople some 1,200 years ago caused to be compiled, mixed up afterwards with Lombard rites and packed in the miscellaneous volumes of private and obscure commentatorsthese are what form that set of traditional opinions which from a great part of Europe receive nevertheless the name of laws; and to this day it is a fact, as disastrous as it is common, that some opinion of Carpzovius, some old custom pointed out by Clarus, or some form of torture suggested in terms of complacent ferocity by Farinaccius, constitute the laws, so carelessly followed by those, who in all trembling ought to exercise their government over the lives and fortunes of men. These laws, the dregs of the most barbarous ages, are examined in this book in so far as regards criminal jurisprudence, and I have dared to expose their faults to the directors of the public happiness in a style which may keep at[112] a distance the unenlightened and intolerant multitude. The spirit of frank inquiry after truth, of freedom from commonplace opinions, in which this book is written, is a result of the mild and enlightened Government under which the Author lives. The great monarchs, the benefactors of humanity, who are now our rulers, love the truths expounded, with force but without fanaticism, by the obscure philosopher, who is only roused to indignation by the excesses of tyranny, but is restrained by reason; and existing abuses, for whosoever well studies all the circumstances, are the satire and reproach of past ages, and by no means of the present age or of its lawgivers.

Lord Kames attacked our criminal law in a still more indirect way, by tracing punishment historically to the revenge of individuals for their private injuries, and by extolling the excellence of the criminal law of the ancient Egyptians. They, he said, avoided capital punishments as much as possible, preferring others which equally prevented the recommission of crimes. Such punishments effected their end with less harshness and severity than is found in the laws of any other nation, ancient or modern.[32] Such was the reasoning which for nearly half a century governed the course of English history, and which for all that time it was a heresy to dispute.

But should a man who is banished and excluded for ever from the society of which he was a member be also deprived of his property? Such a question may be regarded from different points of view. The loss of property is a greater punishment than banishment; there ought, therefore, to be some cases in which, according to his crime, a man should lose the whole, or part, or none of his property. The confiscation of the whole will occur, when the legal sentence of banishment is of a kind to annihilate all the ties that exist between society and its offending member; for in such a case the citizen dies, and only the man remains; and with regard to the political body civil death should produce the same effect as natural death. It would seem then that the confiscated property should pass to a mans lawful heirs rather than[182] to the head of the State, since death and banishment in its extreme form are the same with regard to the body politic. But it is not by this subtlety that I dare to disapprove of confiscations of property. If some have maintained that confiscations have acted as checks on acts of revenge and on the great power of individuals, it is from neglecting to consider that, however much good punishments may effect, they are not for that reason always just, because to be just they must be necessary; and an expedient injustice can be tolerated by no legislator, who wishes to close all doors against watchful tyranny, ever ready to hold out flattering hopes, by temporary advantages and by the prosperity of a few persons of celebrity, in disregard of future ruin and of the tears of numberless persons of obscurity. Confiscations place a price on the heads of the feeble, cause the innocent to suffer the punishment of the guilty, and make the commission of crimes a desperate necessity even for the innocent. What sadder sight can there be than that of a family dragged down to infamy and misery by the crimes of its head, unable to prevent them by the submission imposed on it by the laws, even supposing such prevention to have been within its power! Two other fatal consequences flow from the cruelty of punishments, and are contrary to their very purpose, the prevention of crimes. The first is, that it is not so easy to preserve the essential proportion between crime and punishment, because, however much a studied cruelty may diversify its forms, none of them can go beyond the extreme limit of endurance which is a condition of the human organisation and sensibility. When once this extreme limit is attained, it would be impossible to invent such a corresponding increase of punishment for still more injurious and atrocious crimes as would be necessary to prevent them. The other consequence is, that impunity itself arises from the severity of punishments. Men are restrained within limits both in good and evil; and a sight too atrocious for humanity can only be a passing rage, not a constant system, such as the laws ought to be; if the latter are really cruel, either they are changed, or themselves give rise to a fatal impunity.

A contradiction between the laws and the natural feelings of mankind arises from the oaths which are required of an accused, to the effect that he will be a truthful man when it is his greatest interest to be false; as if a man could really swear to contribute to his own destruction, or as if religion would not be silent with most men when their interest spoke on the other side. The experience of all ages has shown that men have abused religion more than any other of the precious gifts of heaven; and for what reason should criminals respect it, when men esteemed as the wisest have often violated it? Too weak, because too far removed from the senses, are[147] for the mass of people the motives which religion opposes to the tumult of fear and the love of life. The affairs of heaven are conducted by laws absolutely different from those which govern human affairs; so why compromise those by these? Why place men in the terrible dilemma of either sinning against God or concurring in their own ruin? The law, in fact, which enforces such an oath commands a man either to be a bad Christian or to be a martyr. The oath becomes gradually a mere formality, thus destroying the force of religious feelings, which for the majority of men are the only pledge of their honesty. How useless oaths are has been shown by experience, for every judge will bear me out when I say that no oath has ever yet made any criminal speak the truth; and the same thing is shown by reason, which declares all laws to be useless, and consequently injurious, which are opposed to the natural sentiments of man. Such laws incur the same fate as dams placed directly in the main stream of a river: either they are immediately thrown down and overwhelmed, or a whirlpool formed by themselves corrodes and undermines them imperceptibly.

The chief honour of the earliest attempt at law reform belongs to Sir William Meredith, who in 1770 moved for a committee of inquiry into the state of the criminal laws. This committee proposed in its report of the following year the repeal of a few Acts which made certain offences capital; and accordingly the Commons in 1772 agreed, that it should no longer be punishable as high treason to make an attempt on the life of a Privy Councillor, that desertion of officers or soldiers should no longer be capital, nor the belonging to people who called themselves Egyptians. Some other proposals were negatived, such as a repeal of the hard law of James I. against infanticide; but the House of Lords refused their assent even to the slight changes passed by the Commons. It was an innovation, they said, and subversion of the law.[34][53] It is no reproach to Meredith, Burke, and Fox that they ceased to waste their strength against Conservatism such as this. All hope of reform was out of the question; and the most dreadful atrocities were suffered or defended. In 1777 a girl of 14 lay in Newgate under sentence to be burnt alive for false coinage, because some whitewashed farthings, that were to pass for sixpences, were found on her person; and a reprieve only came just as the cart was ready to take her to the stake. Not till 1790 was the law abolished by which women were liable to be burnt publicly for high or petit treason.[35]

In view of these principles it will appear strange (to anyone who does not reflect, that reason has, so to speak, never yet legislated for a nation), that it is just the most atrocious crimes or the most secret and chimerical onesthat is, those of the least probabilitywhich are proved by conjectures or by the weakest and most equivocal proofs: as if it were the interest of the laws and of the judge, not to search for the truth, but to find out the crime; as if the danger of condemning an innocent man were not so much the greater, the greater the probability of his innocence over that of his guilt.

An error, not less common than it is contrary to the object of societythat is, to the consciousness of personal securityis leaving a magistrate to be the arbitrary executor of the laws, free at his pleasure to imprison a citizen, to deprive a personal enemy of his liberty on frivolous pretexts, or to leave a friend unpunished in spite of the strongest proofs of his guilt. Imprisonment is a punishment which, unlike every other, must of necessity precede the declaration of guilt; but this distinctive character does not deprive it of the other essential of punishment, namely, that the law alone shall determine the cases under which it shall be merited. It is for the law, therefore, to point out the amount of evidence of a crime which shall justify the detention of the accused, and his subjection to examination and punishment. For such detention there may be sufficient proofs in common[133] report, in a mans flight, in a non-judicial confession, or in the confession of an accomplice; in a mans threats against or constant enmity with the person injured; in all the facts of the crime, and similar indications. But these proofs should be determined by the laws, not by the judges, whose decisions, when they are not particular applications of a general maxim in a public code, are always adverse to political liberty. The more that punishments are mitigated, that misery and hunger are banished from prisons, that pity and mercy are admitted within their iron doors, and are set above the inexorable and hardened ministers of justice, the slighter will be the evidences of guilt requisite for the legal detention of the suspected.

Nothing is more dangerous than that common axiom, We must consult the spirit of the laws. It is like breaking down a dam before the torrent of opinions. This truth, which seems a paradox to ordinary minds, more struck as they are by a little present inconvenience than by the pernicious but remote consequences which flow from a false principle enrooted among a people, seems to me to be demonstrated. Our knowledge and all our ideas are reciprocally connected together; and the more complicated they are, the more numerous are the approaches to them, and the points of departure. Every man has his own point of viewa different one at different times; so that the spirit of the laws would mean the result of good or bad logic on the part of a judge, of an easy or difficult digestion; it would depend now on the violence of his passions, now on the[128] feebleness of the sufferer, on the relationship between the judge and the plaintiff, or on all those minute forces which change the appearances of everything in the fluctuating mind of man. Hence it is that we see a citizens fate change several times in his passage from one court to another; that we see the lives of wretches at the mercy of the false reasonings or of the temporary caprice of a judge, who takes as his rightful canon of interpretation the vague result of all that confused series of notions which affect his mind. Hence it is that we see the same crimes punished differently by the same court at different times, owing to its having consulted, not the constant and fixed voice of the laws, but their unstable and erring interpretations.

But there was another side to the brightness of this success. In literature as in war no position of honour can be won or held without danger, and of this Beccaria seems to have been conscious when he[15] pleaded against the charge of obscurity, that in writing he had had before his eyes the fear of ecclesiastical persecution. His love for truth, he confessed, stopped short at the risk of martyrdom. He had, indeed, three very clear warnings to justify his fears. Muratori, the historian, had suffered much from accusations of heresy and atheism, and had owed his immunity from worse consequences chiefly to the liberal protection of Pope Benedict XIV. The Marquis Scipio Maffei had also incurred similar charges for his historical handling of the subject of Free-will. But there was even a stronger warning than these, and one not likely to be lost on a man with youth and life before him; that was the fate of the unfortunate Giannone, who, only sixteen years before Beccaria wrote, had ended with his life in the citadel of Turin an imprisonment that had lasted twenty years, for certain observations on the Church of Rome which he had been rash enough to insert in his History of Naples.

By the same rule, in the case of theft, the value of the thing stolen, with some equivalent for the trouble of its recovery, taken from the offender or made a lien on his earnings, appears to be all that justice can demand. Sir Samuel Romilly, himself second to none as a lawyer, wrote seventy years ago: If the restitution of the property stolen, and only a few weeks or even but a few days imprisonment were the unavoidable consequence of theft, no theft would ever be committed. Yet the following sentences are taken[85] at random from authentic English sources: three months imprisonment for stealing a pipe, six months for stealing a penny, a twelvemonth for stealing an umbrella, five years penal servitude for stealing some stamps from a letter, seven years for stealing twopence. In such cases the principle of vindictiveness exceeds the limits of necessity, and therefore of justice; whilst the law loses all its dignity as the expression of unimpassioned resentment.

Penalties of infamy ought neither to be too common, nor to fall upon too many persons at a time; not too common, because the real and too frequent effects of matters of opinion weaken the force of opinion itself; not too general, because the disgrace of many persons resolves itself into the disgrace of none of them.