But the honour of having been the first country to lay aside the use of torture undoubtedly belongs to England, just as the honour of having been the first in modern times to abolish capital punishment, except for political offences, belongs to Russia; and the practical example thus afforded by our laws probably did more for the general abolition of the custom than any written treatise on the subject ever would have done alone. English and foreign jurists long delighted to honour the Common Law for its non-recognition of torture. But though torture was contrary to the Common Law, and even to Magna Charta, it was not contrary to Prerogative; and until the Commonwealth it was used as matter of course in all grave accusations at the mere discretion of the monarch and Privy Council.[19] Therefore Beccaria pointed to England as a country which did not use torture with more justice than Grotius had done, who, when the rack was still in use amongst us, quoted England as a proof that people might safely live without torture.

The object, therefore, of this chapter is chiefly[70] negative, being none other than to raise such mistrust of mere custom, and so strong a sense of doubt, by the contradictions apparent in existing laws and theories, that the difficulties of their solution may tempt to some investigation of the principles on which they rest.

Where there is no capital punishment, as in Michigan, a mans innocence may be discovered subsequently to conviction, and justice done to him for the error of the law. Such a case actually happened not long ago in Michigan, where a prisoners innocence[41] was clearly proved after ten years imprisonment. Where capital punishment exists, there is no such hope; nor is there any remedy if, as in the case of Lewis, who was hung in 1831, another man thirty-three years afterwards confesses himself the murderer. It is impossible to preclude all chances of such errors of justice. Illustrative of this is the story of the church organist near Kieff, who murdered a farmer with a pistol he stole from a priest. After his crime he placed the pistol in the sacristy, and then, when he had prevented the priest from giving evidence against him by the act of confession, went and denounced the priest as the culprit. The priest, in spite of his protestations of innocence, was sentenced to hard labour for life; and when, twenty years afterwards, the organist confessed his guilt on his deathbed, and the priests liberation was applied for, it was found that he had died only a few months before.[26]

Whatever improvement our penal laws have undergone in the last hundred years is due primarily to Beccaria, and to an extent that has not always been recognised. Lord Mansfield is said never to have mentioned his name without a sign of respect. Romilly referred to him in the very first speech he delivered in the House of Commons on the subject of law reform. And there is no English writer of that day who, in treating of the criminal law, does not refer to Beccaria.

I lead a tranquil and solitary life, if a select company of friends in which the heart and mind are in continual movement can be called solitude. This is my consolation, and prevents me feeling in my own country as if I were in exile.


Laws are the conditions under which men, leading independent and isolated lives, joined together in society, when tired of living in a perpetual state of war, and of enjoying a liberty which the uncertainty of its tenure rendered useless. Of this liberty they voluntarily sacrificed a part, in order to enjoy the remainder in security and quiet. The sum-total of all these portions of liberty, sacrificed for the good of each individually, constitutes the sovereignty of a nation, and the sovereign is the lawful trustee and administrator of these portions. But, besides forming this trust-fund, or deposit, it was necessary to protect it from the encroachments of individuals, whose aim it ever is not only to recover from the fund their own deposit, but to avail themselves of that contributed by others. Sensible motives, were therefore wanted to divert the despotic will of the individual from re-plunging into their primitive chaos the laws of society.[123] Such motives were found in punishments, established against transgressors of the laws; and I call them sensible motives, because experience has shown that the majority of men adopt no fixed rules of conduct, nor avoid that universal principle of dissolution, observable alike in the moral as in the physical world, save by reason of motives which directly strike the senses and constantly present themselves to the mind, counterbalancing the strong impressions of private passions, opposed as they are to the general welfare; not eloquence, nor declamations, nor the most sublime truths have ever sufficed to curb the passions for any length of time, when excited by the lively force of present objects.

Ramsay was so far right, that whether a revolution was the only hope for theories like Beccarias or[21] not, the realisation of many of them was one of the first results of that general revolution, which seemed to Ramsay so impossible and undesirable. His letter, as it is a characteristic expression of that common apathy and despair of change which afflict at times even the most sanguine and hopeful, so it is, from its misplaced despair, a good cure for moods of like despondency. For the complete triumph of Beccarias theories about torture, to say nothing of other improvements in law that he lived to witness, is perhaps the most signal instance in history of the conquest of theory over practice. For albeit that his theory was at total variance with the beliefs and ideas of the whole practical school, Beccaria lived to see torture abolished, not only in Lombardy and Tuscany, but in Austria generally, in Portugal and in Sweden, in Russia as well as in France. Yet Ramsays fears at the time were more reasonable than the hopes of Beccaria.

There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.

But why does this crime never entail disgrace upon its author, seeing that it is a theft against the prince, and consequently against the nation? I answer, that offences which men do not consider can be committed against themselves do not interest them enough to produce public indignation against their perpetrator. Smuggling is an offence of this character. Men in general, on whom remote consequences make very feeble impressions, do not perceive the harm that smuggling can do them, nay, often they enjoy a present advantage from it. They only perceive the injury done to the sovereign; they are not interested, therefore, in withdrawing their favour from a smuggler as much as they are in doing so from a man who commits a theft in private life, who forges a signature, or brings upon them other evils. The principle is self-evident, that every sensitive being only interests himself in the evils which he knows. This crime arises from the law itself; since the benefit it promises increases with the increase of the import duty, and therefore the temptation and the facility of committing it increases with the circumference of territory to be guarded and the small size of the prohibited wares. The penalty of losing both the prohibited goods, and whatever effects are found with them, is most just; but its efficacy will be greater in proportion as the import duty is lower, because men only incur risks relative to the advantage derivable from the prosperous issue of their undertaking.

Analogy between crime and punishment is another idea which, except in the case of death for death, has been relegated from the practice of most criminal laws. Yet the principle has in its favour the authority of Moses, the authority of the whole world and of all time, that punishment should, if possible, resemble the crime it punishes in kind; so that a man who blinds another should be blinded himself, he who disfigures another be disfigured himself. Thus in the old-world mythology, Theseus and Hercules inflict on the evil powers they conquer the same cruelties their victims were famous for; Termenus having his skull broken because with his own skull he broke the heads of others; and Busiris, who sacrificed others, being himself sacrificed in his turn. Both Montesquieu and Beccaria also advocate analogy in punishment, and so does Bentham to some degree; there being, indeed, few greater contrasts between the theories of the great English jurist and modern English practice than that the former should not have deprecated some suffering by burning as a penalty analogous to the crime of arson, and that he should have advised the transfixing of a forgers hand or of a calumniators tongue[79] by an iron instrument before the public gaze as good and efficient punishments for forgery and slander.

The knowledge of the true relations between a sovereign and his subjects, and of those between different nations; the revival of commerce by the light of philosophical truths, diffused by printing; and the silent international war of industry, the most humane and the most worthy of rational menthese are the fruits which we owe to the enlightenment of this century. But how few have examined and combated the cruelty of punishments, and the irregularities of criminal procedures, a part of legislation so[119] elementary and yet so neglected in almost the whole of Europe; and how few have sought, by a return to first principles, to dissipate the mistakes accumulated by many centuries, or to mitigate, with at least that force which belongs only to ascertained truths, the excessive caprice of ill-directed power, which has presented up to this time but one long example of lawful and cold-blooded atrocity! And yet the groans of the weak, sacrificed to the cruelty of the ignorant or to the indolence of the rich; the barbarous tortures, multiplied with a severity as useless as it is prodigal, for crimes either not proved or quite chimerical; the disgusting horrors of a prison, enhanced by that which is the cruellest executioner of the miserablenamely, uncertainty;these ought to startle those rulers whose function it is to guide the opinion of mens minds.