A few stories may be taken as illustrative of thousands to indicate the mischief and travesty of justice which arises from the neglect of this principle, and from the custom of making a legal inquiry into moral antecedents.

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.

From this we see how useful is the art of printing, which makes the public, and not a few individuals, the guardians of the sacred laws, and which has scattered that dark spirit of cabal and intrigue, destined to disappear before knowledge and the sciences, which, however apparently despised, are in reality feared by those that follow in their wake. This is the reason that we see in Europe the diminution of those atrocious crimes that afflicted our ancestors and rendered them by turns tyrants or slaves. Whoever knows the history of two or three centuries ago and of our own, can see that from the lap of luxury and effeminacy have sprung the most pleasing of all human virtues, humanity, charity, and the toleration of human errors; he will know what have been the results of that which is so wrongly called old-fashioned simplicity and honesty. Humanity groaning under implacable superstition; the avarice and ambition of a few dyeing with human blood the golden chests and thrones of[132] kings; secret assassinations and public massacres; every noble a tyrant to the people; the ministers of the Gospel truth polluting with blood hands that every day came in contact with the God of mercythese are not the works of this enlightened age, which some, however, call corrupt.

Yet Lord Ellenborough was one of the best judges known to English history; he was, according to his biographer, a man of gigantic intellect, and one of the best classical scholars of his day; and if he erred, it was with all honesty and goodness of purpose. The same must be said of Lord Chief Justice Tenterdens opposition to any change in the law of forgery. His great merits too as a judge are matter of history, yet when the Commons had passed the bill for the abolition of capital punishment for forgery, Lord Tenterden[65] assured the House of Lords that they could not without great danger take away the punishment of death. When it was recollected how many thousand pounds, and even tens of thousands, might be abstracted from a man by a deep-laid scheme of forgery, he thought that this crime ought to be visited with the utmost extent of punishment which the law then wisely allowed. The House of Lords again paused in submission to judicial authority. But, in spite of the liberalism of the Count, the penal laws and customs of Lombardy remained the same; and the cruel legal procedure by torture existed still, untouched by the salutary reforms effected in other departments of the Government. There was the preparatory torture, to extort confession from criminals not yet condemned; there was torture for the discovery of a criminals accomplices; and there was the extraordinary or greater torture, which preceded the execution of a sentence of death. It is true that torture could only be applied to crimes of a capital nature, but there was scarcely an act in the possible category of crimes that was not then punishable with death. Proofs of guilt were sought almost entirely from torture and secret accusations, whilst penalties depended less on the text of any known law than on the discretionthat is, on the capriceof the magistrate. It were superfluous to enlighten the matter more thoroughly by mentioning the numberless instances of innocent persons who have confessed themselves guilty from the agonies of torture; no nation, no age, but can mention its own; but men neither change their natures nor draw conclusions. There is no man who has ever raised his ideas beyond the common needs of life but runs occasionally towards Nature, who with secret and confused voice calls him to herself; but custom, that tyrant of human minds, draws him back and frightens him.

Another way to prevent crimes is to reward virtue. On this head I notice a general silence in the laws of all nations to this day. If prizes offered by academies to the discoverers of useful truths have caused the multiplication of knowledge and of good books, why should not virtuous actions also be multiplied, by prizes distributed from the munificence of the sovereign? The money of honour ever remains unexhausted and fruitful in the hands of the legislator who wisely distributes it.

Thus before his death Beccaria saw torture almost entirely abolished in Europe, and a general tendency spreading to follow the spirit of the changes he advocated in other details of criminal law. Probably no other theorist ever lived to witness so complete an adoption of his principles in practice, or so thorough a transformation of the system he attacked. It is possible that he but gave body and voice to ideas of change already widely prevalent in his time; but the[38] merit of a man belongs none the less to himself, who changes the instability of public opinion into an active and solid force, and who gives distinct expression to the longings vaguely felt by a multitude.

To examine and distinguish all the different sorts[120] of crimes and the manner of punishing them would now be our natural task, were it not that their nature, which varies with the different circumstances of times and places, would compel us to enter upon too vast and wearisome a mass of detail. But it will suffice to indicate the most general principles and the most pernicious and common errors, in order to undeceive no less those who, from a mistaken love of liberty, would introduce anarchy, than those who would be glad to reduce their fellow-men to the uniform regularity of a convent.


A childs simple philosophy of punishment therefore is after all the correct one, when it tells you without hesitation that the reason a man is punished for a bad action is simply because he deserves it. The notion of desert in punishment is based entirely on feelings of the justice of resentment. So that the[83] primary aim of legal punishment is precisely the same as may be shown historically to have been its origin, namely, the regulation by society of the wrongs of individuals. In all early laws and societies distinct traces may be seen of the transition of the vendetta, or right of private revenge, from the control of the person or family injured by a crime to that of the community at large. The latter at first decided only the question of guilt, whilst leaving its punishment to the pleasure of the individuals directly concerned by it. Even to this day in Turkey sentences of death for murder run as follows: So-and-so is condemned to death at the demand of the victims heirs; and such sentences are sometimes directed to be carried out in their presence.[45] By degrees the community obtained control of the punishment as well, and thus private might became public right, and the resentment of individual injuries the Retributive Justice of the State.

Against this general uncertainty of punishment, which no severity in the law can affect or make up for, the only certainty of punishment dependent on the law is in the event of conviction. But even this certainty is of a very qualified nature, for it depends on sentiments of due proportion between a crime and its penalty, which in no two men are the same. Every increase of severity in punishment diminishes its certainty, since it holds out to a criminal fresh hopes of impunity from the clemency of his judges, prosecutors, or jury.