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Such was legal opinion generally as expressed by its ablest representatives with respect to the due punishment for pocket-picking not a hundred years ago. It is easy now to smile at such errors, and, at the barren waste of wisdom spent in their defence, but what weight after that can be attached, on subjects of the general policy of the law, to the opinion of its chief professors? Can it be too much regretted that Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough should have sacrificed to his own authority, whilst alive, the authority of all judges ever destined to succeed him?

These are some of the difficulties of the subject, which teach us the necessity of constant open-mindedness with regard to all ideas or practices connected with criminal law. But, would we further examine our established notions, we should consider a statement from Hobbes which goes to the very root of the theory of punishment.

My occupation is to cultivate philosophy in peace, and so to satisfy my three strongest passions, the love, that is, of literary fame, the love of liberty, and pity for the ills of mankind, slaves of so many errors. My conversion to philosophy only dates back five years, and I owe it to my perusal of the ‘Lettres Persanes.’ The second work that completed my mental revolution was that of Helvetius. The latter forced me irresistibly into the way of truth, and aroused my attention for the first time to the blindness and miseries of humanity.It was at one time said that the work really was Pietro Verri’s and not Beccaria’s, for it was published anonymously, and away from Milan. The domestic circumstances of Pietro lent some countenance to this story, as did also the fact that he charged himself with the trouble of making a correct copy of the manuscript, so that a copy of the treatise does actually exist in Pietro’s handwriting. The story, however, has long since been disproved; yet to show the great interest which Pietro took in the work, and the[11] ready assistance he gave to his friend, a letter to him from Beccaria, with respect to the second edition, deserves mention, in which Beccaria begs him not only to revise the spelling correctly, but generally to erase, add, and correct, as he pleases. It would appear that he was already tired of literary success, for he tells his friend, that but for the motive of preserving his esteem and of affording fresh aliment to their friendship, he should from indolence prefer obscurity to glory itself.

If blind ignorance is less pernicious than confused half-knowledge, since the latter adds to the evils of ignorance those of error, which is unavoidable in a narrow view of the limits of truth, the most precious gift that a sovereign can make to himself or to his people is an enlightened man as the trustee and guardian of the sacred laws. Accustomed to see the truth and not to fear it; independent for the most part of the demands of reputation, which are never completely satisfied and put most men’s virtue to a trial; used to consider humanity from higher points of view; such a man regards his own nation as a family of men and of brothers, and the distance between the nobles and the people seems to him so[249] much the less as he has before his mind the larger total of the whole human species. Philosophers acquire wants and interests unknown to the generality of men, but that one above all others, of not belying in public the principles they have taught in obscurity, and they gain the habit of loving the truth for its own sake. A selection of such men makes the happiness of a people, but a happiness which is only transitory, unless good laws so increase their number as to lessen the probability, always considerable, of an unfortunate choice.Lord Ellenborough, on the last day but one of May 1810, appealed to their lordships to pause, before they passed the Shoplifting Bill and gave their assent to the repeal of a law which had so long been held necessary for the security of the public. No one, he insisted, was more disposed than himself to the exercise of clemency, but there was not the slightest ground for the insinuations of cruelty that had been cast on the administration of the law. If shoplifting did not require the penalty of death, the same rule would have to apply to horse- and sheep-stealing; and, in spite of all that was said in favour of this speculative humanity, they must all agree, that prevention of crime should be the chief object of the law, and that terror alone could prevent the crime in question. Those who were thus speculating in modern legislation urged that punishment should[63] be certain and proportionate; but he could satisfy the House that any attempt to apply a punishment in exact conformity to the offence would be perfectly ludicrous. He had consulted with the other judges, and they were unanimously of opinion that it would not be expedient to remit this part of the severity of the criminal law.[38] He therefore entreated them to pause.Torture was definitely and totally abolished in Portugal in 1776, in Sweden in 1786,[24] and in Austria in 1789. In the latter country, indeed, it had been abolished by Maria Theresa sixteen years before in her German and Polish provinces; and the Penal Code of Joseph II., published in 1785, was an additional tribute to the cause of reform. Secret orders were even given to the tribunals to substitute other punishments for hanging, yet so that the general public should be unaware of the change. There was the greatest anxiety that it should not be thought that this change was out of any deference for Beccaria or his school. ‘In the abolition of capital punishment,’ said Kaunitz, ‘his Majesty pays no regard at all to the principles of modern philosophers, who, in affecting a horror of bloodshed, assert that primitive justice has no right to take from a man that life which Nature only can give him. Our sovereign has only consulted his own conviction, that the punishment he wishes substituted for the capital penalty is more likely to be felt by reason of its duration, and therefore better fitted to inspire malefactors with terror.’


Lastly, the surest but most difficult means of preventing crimes is to improve education—a subject too vast for present discussion, and lying beyond the limits of my treatise; a subject, I will also say, too intimately connected with the nature of government for it ever to be aught but a barren field, only cultivated here and there by a few philosophers, down to the remotest ages of public prosperity. A great man, who enlightens the humanity that persecutes him, has shown in detail the chief educational maxims of real utility to mankind; namely, that it consists less in a barren multiplicity of subjects than in their choice selection; in substituting originals for copies in the moral as in the physical phenomena presented by chance or intention to the fresh minds of youth; in inclining them to virtue by the easy path of feeling;[251] and in deterring them from evil by the sure path of necessity and disadvantage, not by the uncertain method of command, which never obtains more than a simulated and transitory obedience.Our laws prohibit suggestive (leading) questions in a lawsuit: those, that is (according to the doctors of law), which, instead of applying, as they should do,[145] to the genus in the circumstances of a crime, refer to the species; those, in other words, which from their immediate connection with a crime suggest to the accused a direct answer. Questions, according to the criminal lawyers, ought, so to speak, ‘to envelop the main fact spirally and never to attack it in a direct line.’ The reasons for this method are, either that an answer may not be suggested to the accused which may place him face to face with the charge against him, or perhaps because it seems unnatural for him directly to criminate himself. But, whichever of these reasons it may be, the contradiction is remarkable between the existence of such a custom and the legal authorisation of torture; for what interrogatory can be more suggestive than pain? The former reason applies to the question of torture, because pain will suggest to a strong man obstinate silence, in order that he may exchange the greater penalty for the lesser, whilst it will suggest to a weak man confession, in order that he may escape from present torment, which has more influence over him than pain which is to come. The other reason evidently applies too, for if a special question leads a man to confess against natural right, the agonies of torture will more easily do the same. But men are more governed by the difference of names than by that of things.

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The aim of punishment is not to torment sensitive beings.The first trace of Beccaria’s influence in England appeared in the first edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, of which the book on the Criminal Laws[48] was published the very next year after the appearance of the Italian treatise. That Blackstone was well acquainted with it is proved by his frequent reference to it in treating of crimes. From Beccaria he argues that the certainty of punishments is more effectual than their severity, and finds it absurd to apply the same punishment to crimes of different malignity. Blackstone was also the first professional lawyer to find fault with the frequency of capital punishment in England, and to point out as ‘a melancholy truth’ the presence of 160 actions in the statute book which were felonies without benefit of clergy.

There are, however, certain limitations even to the supposed universality of the custom. For the Roman jurists did not consider a re-conviction as a circumstance in itself which justified aggravation of punishment; and all that can be gathered from some fragments in the Pandects and Code is, that some particular cases of repeated crimes were punished more severely than a first offence. But they were crimes of the same kind; and a man whose first crime[91] was a theft and whose second was an assault would not have incurred an aggravated penalty. It is the same to-day in the Austrian, Tuscan, and a few other codes: a second crime is only punished more severely as a second crime when it is of the same kind as the first, so that it would not suffice to prove simply a previous conviction for felony irrespective of the particular sort. There is also another limitation that has sometimes been recognised, for in the Roman law the rule of an increased penalty fell to the ground, if three years elapsed without offence between the punishment for one crime and the commission of a second.[49]This infamous crucible of truth is a still-existing monument of that primitive and savage legal system, which called trials by fire and boiling water, or the accidental decisions of combat, judgments of God, as if the rings of the eternal chain in the control of the First Cause must at every moment be disarranged and put out for the petty institutions of mankind. The only difference between torture and the trial by fire and water is, that the result of the former seems to depend on the will of the accused, and that of the other two on a fact which is purely physical and extrinsic to the sufferer; but the difference is only apparent, not real. The avowal of truth under tortures and agonies is as little free as was in those times the prevention without fraud of the usual effects of fire and boiling water. Every act of our will is ever proportioned to the force of the sensible impression which causes it, and the sensibility of every man is limited. Hence the impression produced by pain may be so intense as to occupy a man’s entire sensibility and leave him no other liberty than the choice of the shortest way of escape, for the present moment, from his penalty. Under such circumstances the answer of the accused is as[151] inevitable as the impressions produced by fire and water; and the innocent man who is sensitive will declare himself guilty, when by so doing he hopes to bring his agonies to an end. All the difference between guilt and innocence is lost by virtue of the very means which they profess to employ for its discovery.



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