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CHAPTER XV. THE MILDNESS OF PUNISHMENTS.Lastly, among the crimes of the third kind are especially those which disturb the public peace and civic tranquillity; such as noises and riots in the public streets, which were made for the convenience of men and traffic, or fanatical sermons that excite the easily roused passions of the curious multitude. For their passions gather force from the number of hearers, and more from a certain obscure and mysterious enthusiasm, than from clear and quiet reasoning, which never has any influence over a large mass of men.

CHAPTER VIII. WITNESSES.What can be thought of an author who presumes to establish his system on the dbris of all hitherto accepted notions, who to accredit it condemns all civilised nations, and who spares neither systems of law, nor magistrates, nor lawyers?

The majority of mankind lack that vigour which is equally necessary for the greatest crimes as for the greatest virtues; whence it would appear, that both extremes are contemporaneous phenomena in nations[162] which depend rather on the energy of their government and of the passions that tend to the public good, than on their size and the constant goodness of their laws. In the latter the weakened passions seem more adapted to maintain than to improve the form of government. From which flows an important consequence, namely, that great crimes in a nation do not always prove its decline.Again, Proportion between crime and punishment seems to be another natural demand of equity. Yet it is evident that it is only approximately possible, and will vary in every age and country according to the prevalent notions of morality. Is imprisonment for a year, or imprisonment for life, or for how long, a fair and proportionate punishment for perjury? Who shall decide? Shall we submit it to the opinion of the judges? But has not Romilly left on record the story of the two men tried by two different judges for stealing some chickens, who were sentenced respectively one to imprisonment for two months, and the other to transportation? Shall we then give up all attempt at proportion and apply the same deterrent as equally efficacious against slight or grave offences? Draco, when asked why he made death the punishment for most offences that were possible, is said to have replied, Small ones deserve it, and I can find no greater for the gravest. The same reasoning was for a long time that of our own law; and in Japan,[78] where every wrong act was one of disobedience to the Emperor, and accordingly of equal value, the same penalty of death for gambling, theft, or murder, obviated all difficulties with regard to a proportion which is easier to imagine than it is to define.

It would appear at first sight that there could be[71] little to say about crimes and punishments, so obvious and self-evident seem the relations that exist between them. Many people still believe in an innate sense of justice in mankind, sufficient always to prevent wide aberrations from equity. Is it, they might ask, conceivable that men should ever lose sight of the distinction between the punishment of guilt and the punishment of innocence?that they should ever punish one equally with the other? Yet there is no country in the world which in its past or present history has not involved the relations of a criminal in the punishment inflicted on him; and in savage countries generally it is still common to satisfy justice with vengeance on some blood-relation of a malefactor who escapes from the punishment due to his crime.

Of what kind, then, will be the punishments due to the crimes of nobles, whose privileges form so great a part of the laws of different countries? I will not here inquire whether this traditional distinction between nobles and commons be advantageous in a government, or necessary in a monarchy; nor whether it be true that a nobility forms an intermediate power in restraint of the excesses of the two[207] extremes, and not rather a caste which, in slavery to itself and to others, confines all circulation of merit and hope to a very narrow circle, like those fertile and pleasant oases scattered among the vast sand-deserts of Arabia; nor whether, supposing it to be true that inequality is inevitable and useful in society, it be also true that such inequality should subsist between classes rather than individuals, and should remain with one part of the body politic rather than circulate through the whole; whether it should rather perpetuate itself than be subject to constant self-destruction and renovation. I will confine myself to the punishments proper for nobles, affirming that they should be the same for the greatest citizen as for the least. Every distinction of honour or of riches presupposes, to be legitimate, a prior state of equality, founded on the laws, which regard all subjects as equally dependent on themselves. One must suppose the men, who renounced their natural state of despotic independence, to have said: Let him who is more industrious than his fellows have greater honours, and let his fame be greater among his successors; let him who is more prosperous and honoured hope even to become more so, but let him fear no less than other men to break those conditions by virtue of which he is raised above them. True it is that such decrees did not emanate in a convocation of the human race, but such decrees exist in the[208] eternal relations of things; they do not destroy the supposed advantages of a nobility, though they prevent its abuses; and they make laws feared, by closing every admission to impunity. And if any one shall say that the same punishment inflicted upon a noble and upon a commoner is not really the same, by reason of the diversity of their education, and of the disgrace spread over an illustrious family, I will reply, that the sensibility of the criminal is not the measure of punishment, but the public injury, and that this is all the greater when committed by the more highly favoured man; that equality of punishment can only be so when considered extrinsically, being really different in each individual; and that the disgrace of a family can be removed by public proofs of kindness on the part of the sovereign towards the innocent family of the criminal. And who is there but knows that formalities which strike the senses serve as reasonings with the credulous and admiring populace?My country is quite immersed in prejudices, left in it by its ancient masters. The Milanese have no pardon for those who would have them live in the eighteenth century. In a capital which counts 120,000 inhabitants, you will scarcely find twenty who love to instruct themselves, and who sacrifice to truth and virtue. My friends and I, persuaded that periodical works are among the best means for tempting to some sort of reading minds incapable of more serious application, are publishing in papers, after the manner of the English Spectator, a work which in England has contributed so much to increase mental culture and the progress of good sense. The French philosophers have a colony in[7] this America, and we are their disciples because we are the disciples of reason, &c.

The more cruel punishments become, the more human minds harden, adjusting themselves, like fluids, to the level of objects around them; and the ever living force of the passions brings it about, that after a hundred years of cruel punishments, the wheel frightens men only just as much as at first did the punishment of prison.In those days to steal five shillings worth of goods from a shop was a capital offence, and Paley had explained the philosophy of the punishment. It would be tedious to follow the course of Romillys bill against this law, called the Shoplifting Act,[62] through the details of its history. Suffice it to say that it passed the Commons in 1810, 1811, 1813, 1816, but was regularly thrown out by the Lords, and only definitely became law many years later. But though the debates on the subject no longer possess the vivid interest that once belonged to them, and are best left to the oblivion that enshrouds them, it is instructive to take just one sample of the eloquence and arguments, that once led Lords and Bishops captive and expressed the highest legal wisdom obtainable in England.The greater the number of those who understand and have in their hands the sacred code of the laws, the fewer will be the crimes committed; for it is beyond all doubt that ignorance and uncertainty of punishments lend assistance to the eloquence of the passions. Yet what shall we think of mankind, when we reflect, that such a condition of the laws is the inveterate custom of a large part of cultivated and enlightened Europe?

Thus, the two writers to whom Beccaria owed most were Montesquieu and Helvetius. The Lettres Persanes of the former, which satirised so many things then in custom, contained but little about penal laws; but the idea is there started for the first time that crimes depend but little on the mildness or severity of the punishments attached to them. The imagination, says the writer, bends of itself to the customs of the country; and eight days of prison or a slight fine have as much terror for a European brought up in a country of mild manners as the loss of an arm would have for an Asiatic.[4] The Esprit des Lois, by the same author, probably contributed more to the formation of Beccarias thoughts than the Lettres Persanes, for it is impossible to read the twelfth book of that work without being struck by the resemblance of ideas. The De LEsprit of Helvetius was condemned by the Sorbonne as a combination of all the various kinds of poison scattered through modern books. Yet it was one of the most influential books of the time. We find Hume recommending it to Adam Smith for its agreeable composition father than for its philosophy; and a writer who had much in common with Beccaria drew[8] from it the same inspiration that he did. That writer was Bentham, who tells us that when he was about twenty, and on a visit to his father and stepmother in the country, he would often walk behind them reading a book, and that his favourite author was Helvetius.Romilly also injured his cause by a pamphlet on the criminal law, in which he criticised severely the doctrines of Paley. So strongly was this resented, that in 1810 his bill to abolish capital punishment for stealing forty shillings from a dwelling-house did not even pass the Commons, being generally opposed, as it was by Windham, because the maintenance of Paleys reputation was regarded as a great object of national concern.[37] That is to say, men voted not so much against the bill as against the author of a heresy against Paley.

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Your letter has raised in me sentiments of the deepest esteem, of the greatest gratitude, and the most tender friendship; nor can I confess to you how honoured I feel at seeing my work translated into the language of a nation which is the mistress and illuminator of Europe. I owe everything to French books. They first raised in my mind feelings of humanity which had been suffocated by eight years of a fanatical education. I cannot express to you the pleasure with which I have read your translation; you have embellished[5] the original, and your arrangement seems more natural than, and preferable to, my own. You had no need to fear offending the authors vanity: in the first place, because a book that treats of the cause of humanity belongs, when once published, to the world and all nations equally; and as to myself in particular, I should have made little progress in the philosophy of the heart, which I place above that of the intellect, had I not acquired the courage to see and love the truth. I hope that the fifth edition, which will appear shortly, will be soon exhausted, and I assure you that in the sixth I will follow entirely, or nearly so, the arrangement of your translation, which places the truth in a better light than I have sought to place it in.Repression by the law seems likewise the only means of preventing that large class of actions which affect the general character and tone of a country, whilst they injuriously affect no individual in particular. The protection of creatures too feeble to protect themselves justifies, under this head, the legal punishment of cruelty to animals. It is idle to say that the law can do nothing against the average moral sense of the community, for the law is often at first the only possible lever of our moral ideas. Were it not for the law we should still bait bulls and bears, and find amusement in cock-throwing; and till the law includes hares and pigeons within the pale of protection drawn so tenderly round bulls and bears, no moral sense is likely to arise against the morbid pleasures of coursing and pigeon-shooting.

The same may be said, though for a different reason, where there are several accomplices of a crime, not all of them its immediate perpetrators. When several men join together in an undertaking, the greater its[163] risk is, the more will they seek to make it equal for all of them; the more difficult it will be, therefore, to find one of them who will be willing to put the deed into execution, if he thereby incurs a greater risk than that incurred by his accomplices. The only exception would be where the perpetrator received a fixed reward, for then, the perpetrator having a compensation for his greater risk, the punishment should be equalised between him and his accomplices. Such reflections may appear too metaphysical to whosoever does not consider that it is of the utmost advantage for the laws to afford as few grounds of agreement as possible between companions in crime.Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession.Lastly, a witnesss evidence is almost null when spoken words are construed into a crime. For the tone, the gesture, all that precedes or follows the different ideas attached by men to the same words, so alter and modify a mans utterances, that it is almost impossible to repeat them exactly as they were spoken. Moreover, actions of a violent and unusual character, such as real crimes are, leave their traces in the numberless circumstances and effects that flow from them; and of such actions the greater the number of the circumstances adduced in proof, the more numerous are the chances for the accused to clear himself. But words only remain in the memory of their hearers, and memory is for the most part unfaithful and often deceitful. It is on that account ever so much more easy to fix a calumny upon a mans words than upon his actions.

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