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CHAPTER XIV. CRIMINAL ATTEMPTS, ACCOMPLICES, IMPUNITY.The opponents of capital punishment may fairly, therefore, draw an argument in their favour from the fact that so many parts of the world have found it not incompatible with the general security of life to erase the death penalty from their list of deterrent agencies. It is better to rely on so plain a fact than on statistics which, like two-edged weapons, often cut both ways. The frequency of executions in one country and their total absence in another may severally coexist with great numerical equality in the number of murders committed in each. It is always better, therefore, to look for some other cause for a given number of murders than the kind of punishment directed to their repression. They may[45] depend on a thousand other things, which it is difficult to ascertain or eliminate. Thus both in Bavaria, where capital punishment has been retained, and in Switzerland, where it had been abolished in 1874, murders have increased greatly in recent years; and this fact has, with great probability, been attributed to the influence of bad habits contracted during the Franco-German war.Infanticide equally is the result of the unavoidable dilemma in which a woman is placed who from weakness or by violence has fallen. Finding herself placed between the alternative of infamy on the one side, and the death of a being insentient of its pains on the other, how can she fail to prefer the latter to the infallible misery awaiting both herself and her unhappy offspring? The best way to prevent this crime would be to give efficient legal protection to weakness against tyranny, which exaggerates those vices that cannot be hidden by the cloak of virtue.

The following letter by Beccaria to the Abb Morellet in acknowledgment of the latters translation of his treatise is perhaps the best introduction to the life and character of the author. The letter in question has been quoted by Villemain in proof of the debt owed by the Italian literature of the last century to that of France, but from the allusions therein contained to Hume and the Spectator it is evident that something also was due to our own. Beccaria had spent eight years of his youth in the college of the Jesuits at Parma, with what sense of gratitude this letter will show. The following is a translation of the greater part of it:

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.Are the same penalties equally useful in all times?

But perhaps the best illustrations of the tendency of actions to retain the infamy, attached to them by a past condition of fanatical punishments, are the cases of suicide and child-killing. Could a Greek of the classical period, or a cultivated historian like Plutarch reappear on earth, nothing would strike him more vividly than the modern conception or recent treatment of these crimes. According to Plutarch, Lycurgus, the great Spartan lawgiver, met his death by voluntary starvation, from the persuasion that even the deaths of lawgivers should be of use to mankind, and serve them with an example of virtue and greatness; and Seneca held that it was the part of a wise man not to live as long as he could but as long as he ought. With what astonishment, then, would not Plutarch or Seneca read of recent European punishments for suicideof Lady Hales[75] losing the estate she was jointly possessed of with her husband, the Judge, because he drowned himself; of the stake and the cross-roads; of the English law which still regards suicide as murder, and condemns one of two men who in a mutual attempt at self-destruction survives the other to the punishment of the ordinary murderer! Is it possible, he would ask, that an action which was once regarded as among the noblest a man could perform, has really come to be looked upon with any other feeling than one of pity or a sad respect?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?

In order that a punishment may be just, it must contain only such degrees of intensity as suffice to deter men from crimes. But as there is no one who on reflection would choose the total and perpetual loss of his liberty, however great the advantages offered him by a crime, the intensity of the punishment of servitude for life, substituted for capital punishment, has that in it which is sufficient to daunt the most determined courage. I will add that it is even more deterrent than death. Very many men face death calmly and firmly, some from fanaticism, some from vanity, which almost always attends a man to the tomb; others from a last desperate attempt either no longer to live or to escape from their misery; but neither fanaticism nor vanity have any place among fetters and chains, under the stick, under the yoke, in a cage of iron; the wretch thus punished is so far from terminating his miseries that with his punishment he only begins them.But ought such a crime to be let go unpunished in the case of a man who has no effects to lose? No: there are kinds of smuggling of so much importance to the revenue (which is so essential and so difficult a part of a good system of laws), that such a crime deserves a considerable punishment, even imprisonment or servitude; but imprisonment and servitude conformable to the nature of the crime itself. For example, the prison of the tobacco-smuggler ought not to be the same as that of the assassin or the thief; and the labours of the former, limited to the work and service of the very treasury he wished to defraud, will be the punishments most conformable to the nature of his crime.

Need it be said that the House of Lords paused, as they were entreated to do, and that they paused and paused again, in a manner more suggestive of the full stop than the comma, generally out of deference to the same authority? Romilly was indignant that so many prelates voted against his bills; but could they have done otherwise, when the best legal authorities in England urged that it would be fatal to vote for them?when they were gravely told that if a certain bill passed, they would not know whether they stood on their heads or on their feet?The reader of this treatise will perceive that I have omitted all reference to a certain class of crime, which has deluged Europe with human blood; a crime which raised those fatal piles, where living human bodies served as food for the flames, and where the blind multitude sought a pleasant spectacle and a sweet harmony from the low dull groans, emitted by wretched sufferers from volumes of black smoke, the smoke of human limbs, whilst their bones and still palpitating entrails were scorched and consumed by the flames. But reasonable men will see that the place, the age, and the subject suffer me not to inquire into the nature of such a crime. It would be too long and remote from my subject to show, how a perfect uniformity of thought ought, contrary to the practice of many countries, to be a necessity in a State; how opinions, which only differ by the most subtle and imperceptible degrees, and are altogether beyond the reach of human intelligence, can[232] yet convulse society, when one of them is not legally authorised in preference to the others; and how the nature of opinions is such, that, whilst some become clearer by virtue of their conflict and opposition, (those that are true floating and surviving, but those that are false sinking to oblivion,) others again, with no inherent self-support, require to be clothed with authority and power. Too long would it be to prove, that howsoever hateful may seem the government of force over human minds, with no other triumphs to boast of but dissimulation and debasement, and howsoever contrary it may seem to the spirit of gentleness and fraternity, commanded alike by reason and the authority we most venerate, it is yet necessary and indispensable. All this should be taken as clearly proved and conformable to the true interests of humanity, if there be anyone who, with recognised authority, acts accordingly. I speak only of crimes that spring from the nature of humanity and the social compact; not of sins, of which even the temporal punishments should be regulated by other principles than those of a narrow philosophy.In the second place, a large proportion of the habitual criminal class is formed of weak-minded or imbecile persons, notorious for the repeated commission of petty thefts, crimes of violence and passion, and confessed to be not amenable to the ordinary influences of self-interest or fear of punishment.[57] It is now proposed to separate this class of prisoners from others; but is punishment operative on them at all? Is not their proper place an asylum?

There is an apparent discrepancy in Beccarias first condemning death as too severe a punishment and then recommending lifelong servitude as one of more deterrent power; but Beccaria would have said that the greater certainty of the latter more than compensated for the greater severity of the other. As regards the relative power of the two punishments, it probably varies in different individuals, some men having a greater dread of the one, and some of the other. The popular theory certainly goes too far, when it assumes that all men have a greater dread of the gallows than of anything else. When George III. once granted a pardon to the female convicts in Newgate on condition of their transportation to New South Wales, though seventeen of them accepted[39] the offer, there were yet six who preferred death to a removal from their native country. It is also stated by Howard that in Denmark the punishment in cases of infanticide, namely, imprisonment for life, with labour and an annual whipping on the place of the crime, was dreaded more than death, which it superseded as a punishment.There was only one offence which Paley thought the English law punished too severely, and that was the offence of privately stealing from the person. In all other cases he defended the application of the capital penalty. It was, he thought, the peculiar merit of the English law that it swept into the net every crime which under any possible circumstance might merit death, whilst it only singled out a few[56] cases in each class of crime for actual punishment; so that whilst few really suffered death, the dread and danger of it hung over the crimes of many. The law was not cruel, for it was never meant to be indiscriminately executed, but left a large margin for the exercise of mercy.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 anothers 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 mans 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 ones disposal, save in that of necessity alone, which, with its iron sceptre, rules the universe.

Ramsay was so far right, that whether a revolution was the only hope for theories like Beccarias or[21] not, the realisation of many of them was one of the first results of that general revolution, which seemed to Ramsay so impossible and undesirable. His letter, as it is a characteristic expression of that common apathy and despair of change which afflict at times even the most sanguine and hopeful, so it is, from its misplaced despair, a good cure for moods of like despondency. For the complete triumph of Beccarias theories about torture, to say nothing of other improvements in law that he lived to witness, is perhaps the most signal instance in history of the conquest of theory over practice. For albeit that his theory was at total variance with the beliefs and ideas of the whole practical school, Beccaria lived to see torture abolished, not only in Lombardy and Tuscany, but in Austria generally, in Portugal and in Sweden, in Russia as well as in France. Yet Ramsays fears at the time were more reasonable than the hopes of Beccaria.



The third consequence is this: if it were proved that the severity of punishments were simply useless (to say nothing of being directly opposed to the public good and to the very object of preventing crimes), even in that case it would be contrary not only to those beneficent virtues that flow from an enlightened reason, which prefers to rule over happy human beings than over a flock of slaves, the constant victims of timid cruelty, but it would be also contrary to justice and to the nature of the social contract itself.It certainly should moderate our reverence for ancestral wisdom to find even a man like Fielding, the novelist, speaking, in his Charge to the Grand Jury of Middlesex, of the pillory and the loss of a mans ears as an extremely mild punishment for a bad case of libel, or declaring our punishments of that time to be the mildest and most void of terror of any other in the known world. Yet Fielding recognised several of the true principles of punishment. He attributed the increase of crime to the great abuse of pardons, which, he said, had brought many more men to the gallows than they had saved from it. He also advocated the diminution of the number of executions, their greater privacy and solemnity, whilst he recommended their following as closely as possible on conviction, that pity for the criminal might be lost in detestation for his crime.[33]

Happy were humanity, if laws were now dictated to it for the first time, when we see on the thrones of Europe beneficent monarchs, men who encourage the virtues of peace, the sciences and the arts, who are fathers to their people, who are crowned citizens, and the increase of whose authority forms the happiness of their subjects, because it removes that intermediate despotism, more cruel because less secure, by which the peoples wishes, always sincere, and always attended to when they can reach the throne, have been usually intercepted and suppressed. If they, I say, suffer the ancient laws to exist, it is owing to the infinite difficulties of removing from errors the revered rust of many ages; which is a reason for enlightened citizens to desire with all the greater ardour the continual increase of their authority.[66]



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