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Capital punishment is injurious by the example of barbarity it presents. If human passions, or the necessities of war, have taught men to shed one another’s blood, the laws, which are intended to moderate human conduct, ought not to extend the savage example, which in the case of a legal execution is all the more baneful in that it is carried out with studied formalities. To me it seems an absurdity, that the laws, which are the expression of the public will, which abhor and which punish murder, should themselves[177] commit one; and that, to deter citizens from private assassination, they should themselves order a public murder. What are the true and the most useful laws? Are they not those covenants and conditions which all would wish observed and proposed, when the incessant voice of private interest is hushed or is united with the interest of the public? What are every man’s feelings about capital punishment? Let us read them in the gestures of indignation and scorn with which everyone looks upon the executioner, who is, after all, an innocent administrator of the public will, a good citizen contributory to the public welfare, an instrument as necessary for the internal security of a State as brave soldiers are for its external. What, then, is the source of this contradiction; and why is this feeling, in spite of reason, ineradicable in mankind? Because men in their most secret hearts, that part of them which more than any other still preserves the original form of their first nature, have ever believed that their lives lie at no one’s disposal, save in that of necessity alone, which, with its iron sceptre, rules the universe.

Less dangerous personally than the theological criticism, but more pernicious to reform, was the hostile criticism that at once appeared from the thick phalanx of professional lawyers, the sound-thinking ‘practical men.’ From whom only two short extracts need be rescued from oblivion, as illustrations of the objections once raised against ideas which have since become the common groundwork of all subsequent legislation, in America as well as in Europe. The first extract is from a work on criminal justice by a lawyer of Provence, who in 1770 wrote as follows:

It is against crimes affecting the person that punishments are most desirable and their vindictive character most justly displayed. Personal violence calls for personal detention or personal chastisement;[102] and the principle of analogy in punishment is most appropriate in the case of a man who maltreats his wife or abuses his strength against any weakness greater than his own. Punishment in such cases is a demand of natural justice, whether anyone is affected by the example or not, and whether or not the man himself is improved by it. Not only is it the best means of enforcing that personal security which is one of the main functions of the State, but it is an expression of that sense of moral reprobation which is so necessary to the good order of society.Banishment, it would seem, should be employed[181] in the case of those against whom, when accused of an atrocious crime, there is a great probability but not a certainty of guilt; but for this purpose a statute is required, as little arbitrary and as precise as possible, condemning to banishment any man who shall have placed his country in the fatal dilemma of either fearing him or of injuring him, leaving him, however, the sacred right of proving his innocence. Stronger reasons then should exist to justify the banishment of a native than of a foreigner, of a man criminated for the first time than of one who has been often so situated.

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.Men oppose the strongest barriers against open tyranny, but they see not the imperceptible insect, which gnaws them away, and makes for the invading stream an opening that is all the more sure by very reason of its concealment from view.

There are a few obvious remedies by which the inducements to crime might be easily diminished. In 1808 Sir Samuel Romilly brought in a bill, to provide persons tried and acquitted of felony with compensation, at the discretion of the judge, for the loss they incurred by their detention and trial. This was objected to, on the ground that the payment of such compensation out of the county rates would discourage prosecutions; and the only justice done to men falsely accused from that day to this is the authorisation given to goal-governors in 1878 to provide prisoners, who have been brought from another county for trial at the assizes and have been acquitted, with means of returning to their own homes. Something more than this is required to save a man so situated from falling into real crime.[66]

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.Nor was it only in Europe that Beccaria’s influence thus prevailed, for as soon as the American Colonies had shaken off their English connection they began to reform their penal laws. When the Revolution began there were in Pennsylvania nearly twenty crimes punishable by death, and within eighteen years of its close the penal code was thoroughly transformed, it being ordained in 1794 that no crime should any longer be capital but murder in the first degree. It is true that this was but a return to the principles adopted by Penn on the settlement of the colony, but Penn’s penal code was annulled by Queen Anne, and the English Government insisted on a strict adherence to the charter from Charles II., which enjoined the retention of the Statute and the Common Law of England. When, therefore, the new Constitution was formed in 1776, the arguments of Beccaria gave fresh life to the memories of Penn.[25]Howard’s book on the Lazarettos of Europe appeared four years after Paley’s work. Although it did not deal directly with crimes, it indirectly treated of their connection with punishment. Howard was able to show that whilst in Middlesex alone 467 persons had been executed in nine years, only six had been executed in Amsterdam; that for a hundred years the average number of executions had been one a year at Utrecht and that for twenty-four years there had not even been one there. The inference therefore was that the diminution of punishment had a direct[58] effect in diminishing crime. Howard also advocated the restriction of capital punishment to cases of murder, arson, and burglary; highwaymen, footpads, and habitual thieves should, he thought, end their days in a penitentiary rather than on the gallows. Even this was a bold proposal, in a state of society yet in bondage to Paley.


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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.[22]


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