But that the humanity of the speculative school of law was not without some influence on public opinion, as well as to a certain extent a reflection of it, is proved by a few abortive attempts in Parliament to mitigate the severity of our penal code in the latter half of the last century. Even so early as 1752[52] the Commons agreed to commute the punishment of felony in certain cases to hard labour in the docks; but the Lords refused their consent, as from that time onward for more than eighty years they regularly continued to refuse it to all mitigation of the laws affecting crime. It must ever remain a matter of regret, that the r?le of the House of Lords in the matter of criminal law reform should have continued from 1752 to 1832 to be one of systematic and obstinate opposition to change, and an opposition which had no justification in the general level of national enlightenment.


An error, not less common than it is contrary to the object of societythat is, to the consciousness of personal securityis leaving a magistrate to be the arbitrary executor of the laws, free at his pleasure to imprison a citizen, to deprive a personal enemy of his liberty on frivolous pretexts, or to leave a friend unpunished in spite of the strongest proofs of his guilt. Imprisonment is a punishment which, unlike every other, must of necessity precede the declaration of guilt; but this distinctive character does not deprive it of the other essential of punishment, namely, that the law alone shall determine the cases under which it shall be merited. It is for the law, therefore, to point out the amount of evidence of a crime which shall justify the detention of the accused, and his subjection to examination and punishment. For such detention there may be sufficient proofs in common[133] report, in a mans flight, in a non-judicial confession, or in the confession of an accomplice; in a mans threats against or constant enmity with the person injured; in all the facts of the crime, and similar indications. But these proofs should be determined by the laws, not by the judges, whose decisions, when they are not particular applications of a general maxim in a public code, are always adverse to political liberty. The more that punishments are mitigated, that misery and hunger are banished from prisons, that pity and mercy are admitted within their iron doors, and are set above the inexorable and hardened ministers of justice, the slighter will be the evidences of guilt requisite for the legal detention of the suspected.

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.

This essay on the Imagination was published soon after the Crimes and Punishments in the periodical to which Beccaria alludes in his letter to Morellet. The Caff was the name of the periodical which, from June 1764, he and his friends published every tenth day for a period of two years. The model of the paper was the English Spectator, and its object to propagate useful knowledge pleasantly among the Milanese, whilst its name rested on the supposition that the friends who composed it executed their labours during meetings in a coffee-house. The most interesting contributions to it by Beccaria are his Fragment on Style, his article on Periodical Newspapers, and his essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination.

This truth is, in fact, felt, though in a confused way, by the very persons who place themselves farthest from it. For a confession made under torture is of no avail unless it be confirmed by an oath made after it; and yet, should the criminal not confirm his confession, he is tortured afresh. Some doctors of law and some nations only allow this infamous begging of the question to be employed three times; whilst other nations and other doctors leave it to the discretion of the judge.