Adultery is a crime which, politically considered, derives its force and direction from two causes, namely, from the variable laws in force among mankind, and from that strongest of all attractions which draws one sex towards the other.[70]


It would be possible to distinguish a case of fraud from a grave fault, a grave fault from a light one, and this again from perfect innocence; then to affix to the first the penalties due for crimes of falsification; to the second lesser penalties, but with the loss of personal liberty; and, reserving for the last degree the free choice of the means of recovery, to deprive the third degree of such liberty, whilst leaving it to a mans creditors. But the distinction between grave and light should be fixed by the blind impartiality of the laws, not by the dangerous and arbitrary wisdom of a judge. The fixings of limits are as necessary in politics as in mathematics, equally in the measurement[219] of the public welfare as in the measurement of magnitudes.[68] 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.

That the scruple to convict diminishes the certainty of punishment, and therefore raises hopes of impunity, is illustrated by the case of two American brothers who, desirous to perpetrate a murder, waited till their victim had left their State, in which capital punishment had been abolished, and had betaken himself to a State which still retained it, before they ventured to execute their criminal intention. That such reluctance to convict is often most injurious to[42] the public is proved by the case of a woman at Chelmsford who some years ago was acquitted, in spite of strong evidence, on a charge of poisoning, and who, before her guilt was finally proved, lived to poison several other persons who would otherwise have escaped her arts.[27]

That Penology is still only in its experimental stage as a science, in spite of the progress it has made in recent times, is clear from the changes that are so constantly being made in every department of our penal system. We no longer mutilate nor kill our criminals, as our ancestors did in the plenitude of their wisdom; we have ceased to transport them, and our only study now is to teach them useful trades and laborious industry. Yet whether we shall better bring them to love labour by compulsory idleness or by compulsory work, whether short imprisonment or long is the most effective discipline, whether seclusion or association is least likely to demoralise them, these and similar questions have their answers in a quicksand of uncertainty. This only may experience be said to have yet definitely proved, that very little relation exists in any country between the given quantity of crime and the quantity or severity of punishment directed to its prevention. It has taken thousands of years to establish this truth, and even yet it is but partially recognised over the world. In methods of trial the use of torture is contrary to sound reason. Humanity cries out against the practice and insists on its abolition. Another ridiculous reason for torture is the purgation from infamy; that is to say, a man judged infamous by the laws must confirm his testimony by the dislocation of his bones. This abuse ought not to be tolerated in the eighteenth century. It is believed that pain, which is a physical sensation, purges from infamy, which is merely a moral condition. Is pain, then, a crucible, and infamy a mixed impure substance? But infamy is a sentiment, subject neither to laws nor to reason, but to common opinion. Torture itself causes real infamy to the victim of it. So the result is, that by this method infamy will be taken away by the very fact of its infliction!

The first class of crimesthat is, the worst, because they are the most injurious to societyare those known as crimes of high treason. Only tyranny and ignorance, which confound words and ideas of the clearest meaning, can apply this name, and consequently the heaviest punishment, to different kinds of crimes, thus rendering men, as in a thousand other cases, the victims of a word. Every crime, be it ever so private, injures society; but every crime does not aim at its immediate destruction. Moral, like physical actions, have their limited sphere of activity, and are differently circumscribed, like all the movements of nature, by time and space; and therefore only a sophistical interpretation, which is generally the philosophy of slavery, can confound what eternal truth has distinguished by immutable differences.

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?

Lastly, some have thought that the gravity of an acts sinfulness should be an element in the measure of crimes. But an impartial observer of the true relations between man and man, and between man[201] and God, will easily perceive the fallacy of this opinion. For the former relationship is one of equality; necessity alone, from the clash of passions and opposing interests, having given rise to the idea of the public utility, the basis of human justice. But the other relationship is one of dependence on a perfect Being and Creator, who has reserved to Himself alone the right of being at the same time legislator and judge, and can alone unite the two functions without bad effects. If He has decreed eternal punishments to those who disobey His omnipotence, what insect shall dare to take the place of Divine justice, or shall wish to avenge that Being, who is all-sufficient to Himself, who can receive from things no impression of pleasure nor of pain, and who alone of all beings acts without reaction? The degree of sinfulness in an action depends on the unsearchable wickedness of the heart, which cannot be known by finite beings without a revelation. How, then, found thereon a standard for the punishment of crimes? In such a case men might punish when God pardons, and pardon when God punishes. If men can act contrary to the Almighty by offending Him, they may also do so in the punishments they inflict.

Howards book on the Lazarettos of Europe appeared four years after Paleys 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.

What influence have they on customs?

I know that those general principles which tend to enlighten and improve the human race are not absolutely useless that the enlightenment of nations is not without some effect on their rulers provided that the prerogative of the latter, their power, their security, their authority, their safety, is not touched thereby. I know well that this general enlightenment, so much boasted of, is a beautiful and glorious chimera, with which philosophers love to amuse themselves, but which would soon disappear if they would open history, and see therefrom to what causes improved institutions are due. The nations of antiquity have passed, and those of the present will pass, before philosophy and its influence have reformed a single government.

It was at one time said that the work really was Pietro Verris and not Beccarias, for it was published anonymously, and away from Milan. The domestic circumstances of Pietro lent some countenance to this story, as did also the fact that he charged himself with the trouble of making a correct copy of the manuscript, so that a copy of the treatise does actually exist in Pietros handwriting. The story, however, has long since been disproved; yet to show the great interest which Pietro took in the work, and the[11] ready assistance he gave to his friend, a letter to him from Beccaria, with respect to the second edition, deserves mention, in which Beccaria begs him not only to revise the spelling correctly, but generally to erase, add, and correct, as he pleases. It would appear that he was already tired of literary success, for he tells his friend, that but for the motive of preserving his esteem and of affording fresh aliment to their friendship, he should from indolence prefer obscurity to glory itself.

Lord Ellenborough was so hard upon speculative humanity, as opposed to real practical common sense, that the speculative school are never likely to forget him. But they owe too much to him not to forgive him; since he is the standing proof, that in matters of the general policy of the law professional opinion is a less trustworthy guide than popular sentiment,[64] and that in questions of law reform it is best to neglect the fossil-wisdom of forgotten judges, and to seek the opinion of Jones round the corner as readily as that of Jones upon the Bench.