Something, however, occurred more fatal to the reform of our penal laws than even the philosophy of Paley, and that was the French Revolution. Before 1790 there had been 115 capital offences in France; so that to alter the criminal law in England was to follow a precedent of unpleasant auspices. Reform not unnaturally savoured of revolution, and especially a reform of the penal laws. In 1808 Romilly said he would advise anyone, who desired to realise the mischievous effects of the French Revolution in England to attempt some legislative reform on humane and liberal principles. With bitterness he tells the story of a young nobleman, who, addressing him insolently at the bar of the House of Commons, informed him that he for his part was for hanging all criminals. Romilly observed that he supposed he meant punishments should be certain and the laws executed, whatever they were. No, no, was the reply, it isnt that. There is no good done by mercy. They only get worse: I would hang them all up at once. And this represented the prevalent[59] opinion. Windham, in a speech against the Shoplifting Bill, inquired, Had not the French Revolution begun with the abolition of capital punishment in every case? Was such a system as this was to be set up without consideration against that of Dr. Paley![36] This, then, is the way to avoid confounding the relations and invariable nature of things, which, being unlimited by time and in ceaseless operation, confounds and overturns all narrow regulations that depart from it. It is not only the arts of taste and pleasure which have for their universal principle the faithful imitation of nature; but the art of politics itself, at least that which is true and permanent, is subject to this general maxim, since it consists in nothing else than the art of directing in the best way and to the same purposes the immutable sentiments of mankind.

But of far greater historical interest than such criticism is that of Ramsay, the Scotch poet and painter, to whom a copy of Beccarias treatise had been shown by Diderot, and who wrote a letter about it to the latter, which, though it contains some very just criticisms on Beccaria, yet reads for the most part very curiously by the light of subsequent history, and illustrates graphically the despair of all reform then felt by most men of reflection.[8]

Frederick the Great had already abolished it in Prussia;[1] it had been discontinued in Sweden; it was not recognised in the military codes of Europe, and Beccaria said it was not in use in England. This was true generally, although the peine forte et dure, by which a prisoner who would not plead was subjected to be squeezed nearly to death by an iron weight, was not abolished till the year 1771.[2] The necessity of remedying the disorders caused by the physical despotism of each man singly produced the first laws and the first magistrates; this was the end and object of the institution of societies, and this end has always been maintained, either in reality or appearance, at the head of all codes, even of those that operated otherwise. But the closer contact of men with one another and the progress of their knowledge brought about an endless series of mutual actions and needs, which ever lay beyond the foresight of the laws and below the actual power of individuals. From this epoch began the despotism of opinion, which afforded the only means for obtaining from others those benefits and averting those evils, for which the laws failed to provide. It is this opinion that is the trouble equally of the wise man and the fool; that has raised the semblance of virtue to higher credit than virtue itself; that even makes the rascal turn missionary, because he finds his own[211] interest therein. Hence the favour of men became not only useful but necessary, if a man would not fall below the general level. Hence, not only does the ambitious man seek after such favour as useful to himself, and the vain man go begging for it as a proof of his merit, but the man of honour also may be seen to require it as a necessity. This honour is a condition that very many men attach to their own existence. Born after the formation of society, it could not be placed in the general deposit; it is rather a momentary return to the state of nature, a momentary withdrawal of ones self from the dominion of those laws which, under the circumstances, fail to afford the sufficient defence required of them.

In the first place, our public works prisons, however excellent for their material results, are so many schools of crime, where for the one honest trade a man learns by compulsion he acquires a knowledge of three or four that are dishonest. I have become acquainted, says a released convict, with more of what is bad and evil, together with the schemes and dodges of professional thieves and swindlers, during the four years I served the Queen for nothing, than I should have done in fifty years outside the prison walls. The association rooms at Dartmoor are as bad as it is possible for anything to be they are really class-rooms in the college of vice, where all are alike students and professors. The present system in most instances merely completes the mans vicious and criminal education, instead of in the slightest degree reforming him.[56] It has been attempted in various ways to obviate this difficulty, by diminishing opportunities of companionship; but the real demoralisation of prison life is probably due less to the actual contact of bad men with one another than to the deadened sense of criminality which they derive from the feeling of numbers, just as from the same cause the danger of drowning is forgotten on the ice. Prisoners in gangs lose all shame of crime, just as men in armies forget their native horror of murder.


But if penal laws thus express the wide variability of human morality, they also contribute to make actions moral or immoral according to the penalties by which they enforce or prevent them. For not[74] only does whatever is immoral tend to become penal, but anything can be made immoral by being first made penal; and hence indifferent actions often remain immoral long after they have ceased to be actually punishable. Thus the Jews made Sabbath-breaking equally immoral with homicide or adultery, by affixing to each of them the same capital penalty; and the former offence, though it no longer forms part of any criminal code, has still as much moral force against it as many an offence directly punishable by the law.

Capital punishment becomes a spectacle for the majority of mankind, and a subject for compassion and abhorrence for others; the minds of the spectators are more filled with these feelings than with the wholesome terror the law pretends to inspire. But in moderate and continuing penalties the latter is the predominant feeling, because it is the only one. The limit, which the legislator should affix to the severity of penalties, appears to lie in the first signs of a feeling[173] of compassion becoming uppermost in the minds of the spectators, when they look upon the punishment rather as their own than as that of the criminal.

Six days after his arrival Beccaria writes in a similar strain: that he is in the midst of adorations and the most flattering praises, considered as the companion and colleague of the greatest men in Europe, regarded with admiration and curiosity, his company competed for; in the capital of pleasures, close to three theatres, one of them the Comdie Fran?aise, the most interesting spectacle in the world; and that yet he is unhappy and discontented, and unable to find distraction in anything. He tells his wife that he is in excellent health, but that she must say just the contrary, in order that there may be a good pretext for his return; and the better to ensure this, he sends his wife another letter which she may show to his parents, and in which, at the end of much general news about Paris, he alludes incidentally to the bad effect on his health of drinking the waters of the Seine. He regrets having to resort to this fiction; but considers that he is justified by the circumstances.

But these periods of time will not be lengthened in exact proportion to the atrocity of crimes, since the probability of a crime is in inverse ratio to its atrocity. It will, then, be necessary to shorten the period for inquiry and to increase that of prescription; which[159] may appear to contradict what I said before, namely, that it is possible to inflict equal penalties on unequal crimes, by counting as a penalty that period of imprisonment or of prescription which precedes the verdict. To explain to the reader my idea: I distinguish two kinds of crimesthe first, atrocious crimes, beginning with homicide and including all the excessive forms of wickedness; the second comprising less considerable crimes. This distinction is founded in human nature. Personal security is a natural right, the security of property a social one. The number of motives which impel men to violate their natural affections is far smaller than those which impel them, by their natural longing for happiness, to violate a right which they do not find written in their hearts but only in the conventions of society. The very great difference between the probability of these two kinds of crime respectively makes it necessary that they should be ruled by different principles. In cases of the more atrocious crimes, because they are more uncommon, the time for inquiry ought to be so much the less as the probability of the innocence of the accused is greater; and the time of prescription ought to be longer, as on an ultimate definite sentence of guilt or innocence depends the destruction of the hope of impunity, the harm of which is proportioned to the atrocity of the crime. But in cases of lesser criminality, where the presumption in favour of a mans[160] innocence is less, the time for inquiry should be longer; and as the harm of impunity is less, the time of prescription should be shorter. But such a division of crimes ought, indeed, not to be admitted, if the danger of impunity decreased exactly in proportion to the greater probability of the crime. One should remember that an accused man, whose guilt or innocence is uncertain, may, though acquitted for lack of proofs, be subjected for the same crime to a fresh imprisonment and inquiry, in the event of fresh legal proofs rising up against him, so long as the time of prescription accorded by the laws has not been past. Such at least is the compromise that I think best fitted to preserve both the liberty and the security of the subject, it being only too easy so to favour the one at the expense of the other, that these two blessings, the inalienable and equal patrimony of every citizen, are left unprotected and undefended, the one from declared or veiled despotism, the other from the turbulence of civil anarchy.