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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.

But there is a still further uncertainty of punishment, for it is as well known in the criminal world as elsewhere that the sentence pronounced in court is not the real sentence, and that neither penal servitude for[96] five years nor penal servitude for life mean necessarily anything of the sort. The humanity of modern legislation insists on a remission of punishment, dependent on a convict’s life in the public works prisons, in order that the element of hope may brighten his lot and perchance reform his character. This remission was at first dependent simply on his conduct, which was perhaps too generously called good where it was hard for it to be bad; now it depends on his industry and amount of work done. Yet the element of hope might be otherwise assured than by lessening the certainty of punishment, say, by associating industry or good conduct with such little privileges of diet, letter-writing, or receiving of visits, as still shed some rays of pleasure over the monotony of felon-life. It should not be forgotten, that the Commission of 1863, which so strongly advocated the remissibility of parts of penal sentences, did so in despite of one of its principal members, against no less an authority than the Lord Chief Justice, then Sir Alexander Cockburn.[55] The very fact of the remissibility of a sentence is an admission of its excessive severity; for to say that a sentence is never carried out is to say that it need never have been inflicted.

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.Hence both in the state of extreme political liberty and in that of extreme political subjection the ideas of honour disappear or get perfectly confused with others. For in the former the despotism of the laws renders the pursuit of the favour of others of no avail; and in the latter state the despotism of men, by destroying civil existence, reduces everybody to a precarious and temporary personality. Honour, therefore, is one of the fundamental principles of those monarchies that are a mitigated form of despotism, being to them what revolutions are to despotic States, namely, a momentary return to the state of nature, and a reminder to the chief ruler of the condition of primitive equality.

CHAPTER II. THE GENERAL INFLUENCE OF BECCARIA ON LEGISLATION.Nothing could be more interesting than Lord Kames’ account of the growth of criminal law, from the rude revenges of savages to the legal punishments of civilised States; but it was probably intended by its author less as an historical treatise than as a veiled attack upon the penal system of his country. It is, therefore, a good illustration of the timidity of the Theoretical school against the overwhelming forces of the Practical school of law, which, of course, included[51] the great body of the legal profession; and it is the first sign of an attempt to apply the experience of other countries and times to the improvement of our own jurisprudence.From all that has gone before a general theorem may be deduced, of great utility, though little comformable to custom, that common lawgiver of nations. The theorem is this: ‘In order that every punishment may not be an act of violence, committed by one man or by many against a single individual, it ought to be above all things public, speedy, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportioned to its crime, dictated by the laws.’

The following letter by Beccaria to the Abbé Morellet in acknowledgment of the latter’s translation of his treatise is perhaps the best introduction to the life and character of the author. The letter in question has been quoted by Villemain in proof of the debt owed by the Italian literature of the last century to that of France, but from the allusions therein contained to Hume and the ‘Spectator’ it is evident that something also was due to our own. Beccaria had spent eight years of his youth in the college of the Jesuits at Parma, with what sense of gratitude this letter will show. The following is a translation of the greater part of it:—

But, to turn from this unpleasant episode of Beccaria’s life, Catharine II., soon after his return to Milan, invited him to St. Petersburg, to assist in the preparation of her intended code of laws. It would seem from one of Pietro Verri’s letters that Beccaria was at first inclined to accept the proposal,[15] but it is improbable that any such offer would really have tempted him to exchange Italian suns for Russian snows, even if Kaunitz and Firmian had not resolved to remove the temptation, by making his talents of service at home. This they did by making him Professor of Political Economy in the Palatine School of Milan, in November 1768; and his published lectures on this subject form the largest work he ever wrote.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.

Neither the noble nor the rich man ought to be able to pay a price for injuries committed against the feeble and the poor; else riches, which, under the[206] protection of the laws, are the prize of industry, become the nourishment of tyranny. Whenever the laws suffer a man in certain cases to cease to be a person and to become a thing, there is no liberty; for then you will see the man of power devoting all his industry to gather from the numberless combinations of civil life those which the law grants in his favour. This discovery is the magic secret that changes citizens into beasts of burden, and in the hand of the strong man forms the chain wherewith to fetter the actions of the imprudent and the weak. This is the reason why in some governments, that have all the semblance of liberty, tyranny lies hidden or insinuates itself unforeseen, in some corner neglected by the legislator, where insensibly it gains force and grows.Another principle would serve admirably to draw still closer the important connection between a misdeed and its punishment, and that is, that the latter should as far as possible conform to the nature of the crime. This analogy facilitates marvellously the contrast that ought to exist between the impulse to[188] the crime and the counter-influence of the punishment, the one, that is, diverting the mind and guiding it to an end quite different from that to which the seductive idea of transgressing the law endeavours to lead it.

The success which attended Romilly’s Privately Stealing Bill and the failure which attended almost all his other efforts was probably due to the fact that larceny from the person without violence was, as has been said, the one single kind of offence which had Paley’s sanction for ceasing to be capital. But the[61] very success of his first bill was the chief cause of the failure of his subsequent ones. For, capital punishment having been removed for mere pilfering, prosecutions became more frequent, and the opponents of reform were thus able to declare that an increase of theft had been the direct consequence of the abolition of the capital penalty. It was in vain to point out, that the apparent increase of theft was due to the greater readiness of individuals to prosecute and of juries to convict, when a verdict of guilt no longer involved death as the consequence.


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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 author’s 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.CHAPTER XX. CERTAINTY OF PUNISHMENTS—PARDONS.

What is the best way of preventing crimes?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.



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