It was this system that Beccarias little work[3] destroyed, and had that been its only result, it would still deserve to live in mens memories for its historical interest alone. For upon the legislation of that time, and especially upon that of Italy, this pamphlet on criminal law broke like a ray of sunlight on a dungeon floor, making even blacker that which was black before by the very brilliancy which it shed upon it. To Beccaria primarily, though not of course solely, belongs the glory of having expelled the use of torture from every legal tribunal throughout Christendom.

No inconvenience that may arise from a strict observance of the letter of penal laws is to be compared with the inconveniences of subjecting them to interpretation. The momentary inconvenience in the former case involves, indeed, correcting the words of the law which are the cause of the uncertainty, a task both easy and necessary; but the fatal licence of arguing, the source of so many arbitrary and venal disputes, is thereby prevented. When a fixed code of laws, which must be observed to the letter, leaves to the judge no further trouble than to inquire into the actions of citizens and to decide on their conformity to the written law; when the standard of just and[129] unjust, which should equally direct the actions of the ignorant citizen as of the philosophical one, is not a matter of controversy but of fact; then are people no longer subject to the petty tyrannies of many men, which are all the more cruel by reason of the smaller distance that separates the sufferer from the inflictor of suffering, and which are more pernicious than the tyrannies of a single man, inasmuch as the despotism of many is only curable by that of one, and a despots cruelty is proportioned, not to the power he possesses, but to the obstacles he encounters. Under a fixed code of laws citizens acquire that consciousness of personal security, which is just, because it is the object of social existence, and which is useful, because it enables them to calculate exactly the evil consequences of a misdeed. It is true they will also acquire a spirit of independence, but not such a spirit as will seek to shake the laws and prove rebellious against the chief magistrates, except against such of them as have dared to apply the sacred name of virtue to a spiritless submission to their own self-interested and capricious opinions. These principles will displease those who have assumed the right to transfer to their subordinates the strokes of tyranny they themselves have suffered from their superiors. I personally should have everything to fear, if the spirit of tyranny and the spirit of reading ever went together. It may be asked, How far was Beccaria the first to protest against the cruelty and absurdity of torture? To this it must be replied that although actually he was not the first, he was the first to do so with effect. The difference between previous writers on the subject and Beccaria is the difference between a man whose ideas are in advance of those of his age and a man who raises the ideas of his age to a level with his[31] own. So early as the sixteenth century Montaigne, in his Essay on Conscience, had said plainly enough that the putting a man to the rack was rather a trial of patience than of truth; that pain was as likely to extort a false confession as a true one; and that a judge, by having a man racked that he might not die innocent, caused him to die both innocent and racked. Also Grevius Clivensis wrote a work whilst in prison in Amsterdam, in which he sought to prove that torture was iniquitous, fallacious, and unchristian.[17] This was published in 1624; and nearly a century later a Jesuit, Spee, wrote against the use of torture, as also against the cruel practices in force against witches.[18] And in later days Montesquieu, twenty years before Beccaria, had gone so far as to say that, since a civilised nation like England had abandoned torture without evil consequences, it was therefore unnecessary; but he followed the subject to no definite conclusion.

Men of letters as a rule did not speak with this boldness, but in conscious opposition to professional and popular feeling expressed their doubts with a hesitation that was almost apologetic. So, for example,[50] Goldsmith could not avoid even questioning the validity of that right which social combinations have assumed of capitally punishing offences of a slight nature.[31] Strange, that in England such an argument should ever have seemed a daring novelty, a thing to be said tentatively and with reserve!

So great, however, did the changes appear to be, that Sir James Mackintosh declared, towards the close of his life, that it was as if he had lived in two different countries, such was the contrast between the past and the present. Yet Sir James died in the very year that the first Reform Bill passed, and it was not till after that event that any really great progress was made towards ameliorating the penal laws. The most successful adoption of Beccarias principles of punishment occurred in Tuscany, under the Grand Duke Leopold. When he ascended the ducal throne, the Tuscans were the most abandoned people of all Italy. Robberies and murders were none the less frequent for all the gallows, wheels, and tortures which were employed to repress them. But Leopold in 1786 resolved to try Beccarias plan, for which purpose he published a code, proportioning punishments to crimes, abolishing mutilation and torture, reducing the number of acts of treason, lessening confiscations, destroying the right of asylum, and above all abolishing capital punishment even for murder. The result was, says a contemporary, that Tuscany, from having been the land of the greatest crimes and villanies, became the best ordered State of Europe.[22] During twenty years only five murders were committed in Tuscany, whilst at Rome, where death continued to be inflicted with great pomp, as[36] many as sixty were committed within the space of three months.[23] But whether the international extradition of criminals be useful I would not venture to decide, until laws more in conformity with the needs of humanity, until milder penalties, and until the emancipation of law from the caprice of mere opinion, shall have given[194] security to oppressed innocence and hated virtue; until tyranny shall have been confined, by the force of universal reason which ever more and more unites the interests of kings and subjects, to the vast plains of Asia; however much the conviction of finding nowhere a span of earth where real crimes were pardoned might be the most efficacious way of preventing their occurrence.

Some crimes tend directly to the destruction of society or to the sovereign who represents it; others affect individual citizens, by imperilling their life, their property, or their honour; whilst others, again, are actions contrary to the positive or negative obligations which bind every individual to the public weal.

Some courts promise impunity to an accomplice in a serious crime who will expose his companions, an expedient that has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. Among the former must be counted the national authorisation of treachery, a practice which even criminals detest; for crimes of courage are less pernicious to a people than crimes of cowardice, courage being no ordinary quality, and needing only a beneficent directing force to make it conduce to the public welfare, whilst cowardice is more common and contagious, and always more self-concentrated than the other. Besides, a tribunal which calls for the aid of the law-breaker proclaims its own uncertainty and the weakness of the laws themselves. On the other hand, the advantages of the practice are, the prevention[164] of crimes and the intimidation of the people, owing to the fact that the results are visible whilst the authors remain hidden; moreover, it helps to show that a man who breaks his faith to the laws, that is, to the public, is likely also to break it in private life. I think that a general law promising impunity to an accomplice who exposes a crime would be preferable to a special declaration in a particular case, because in this way the mutual fear which each accomplice would have of his own risk would tend to prevent their association; the tribunal would not make criminals audacious by showing that their aid was called for in a particular case. Such a law, however, should accompany impunity with the banishment of the informer. But to no purpose do I torment myself to dissipate the remorse I feel in authorising the inviolable laws, the monument of public confidence, the basis of human morality, to resort to treachery and dissimulation. What an example to the nation it would be, were the promised impunity not observed, and were the man who had responded to the invitation of the laws dragged by learned quibbles to punishment, in spite of the public troth pledged to him! Such examples are not rare in different countries; neither, therefore, is the number small, of those who consider a nation in no other light than in that of a complicated machine, whose springs the cleverest and the strongest move at their will. Cold and insensible to all that forms the delight of[165] tender and sensitive minds, they arouse, with imperturbable sagacity, either the softest feelings or the strongest passions, as soon as they see them of service to the object they have in view, handling mens minds just as musicians do their instruments.

If the interpretation of laws is an evil, it is clear that their obscurity, which necessarily involves interpretation, must be an evil also, and an evil which will be at its worst where the laws are written in any other than the vernacular language of a country. For in that case the people, being unable to judge of themselves how it may fare with their liberty or their limbs, are made dependent on a small class of men; and a book, which should be sacred and open to all, becomes, by virtue of its language, a private and, so to speak, a family manual.

Is it possible, then, so beforehand to apportion punishments to crimes that when a crime is committed it shall be but necessary to refer to a code and at once detect its appropriate punishment? Or must the law be general in its language, and leave a wide margin to the discretion of the judge? Beccaria would have the judicial function confined solely to the ascertainment of the fact of a crime, its punishment preordained by the law. On the other hand it is said, that it is impossible to anticipate every case that may arise; that no two cases are ever alike; that it is better to leave the nice adjustment of penalties to the wisdom and impartiality of a judge, and only limit his discretion by rules of a most expansive description.

No man has gratuitously parted with a portion of his own liberty with a view to the public good; that is a chimera which only exists in romances. Each one of us would wish, if it were possible, that the[122] covenants which bind others should not bind himself. There is no man but makes himself the central object of all the combinations of the globe.