A farm labourer, with a wife and four children, and earning eleven shillings a week, was imprisoned in the county gaol for two months for the theft of a pound of butter. Soon after his release sickness entered his home, and to supply his childrens wants[89] he again yielded to temptation and stole twelve ducks eggs. For this he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude; or rather not for this theft, but because he had already incurred a severe punishment for a theft of some butter. The sentence was most perfectly lawful, but was it not perfectly unjust? 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.

We shall see, if we open histories, that laws, which[118] are or ought to be covenants between free men, have generally been nothing but the instrument of the passions of some few men, or the result of some accidental and temporary necessity. They have never been dictated by an unimpassioned student of human nature, able to concentrate the actions of a multitude of men to a single point of view, and to consider them from that point alonethe greatest happiness divided among the greatest number. Happy are those few nations which have not waited for the slow movement of human combinations and changes to cause an approach to better things, after intolerable evils, but have hastened the intermediate steps by good laws; and deserving is that philosopher of the gratitude of mankind, who had the courage, from the obscurity of his despised study, to scatter abroad among the people the first seeds, so long fruitless, of useful truths.

Repression by the law seems likewise the only means of preventing that large class of actions which affect the general character and tone of a country, whilst they injuriously affect no individual in particular. The protection of creatures too feeble to protect themselves justifies, under this head, the legal punishment of cruelty to animals. It is idle to say that the law can do nothing against the average moral sense of the community, for the law is often at first the only possible lever of our moral ideas. Were it not for the law we should still bait bulls and bears, and find amusement in cock-throwing; and till the law includes hares and pigeons within the pale of protection drawn so tenderly round bulls and bears, no moral sense is likely to arise against the morbid pleasures of coursing and pigeon-shooting.

It is well known that Lord Tenterden refused ever to sit again in the House of Lords if the Reform Bill became law, and that he predicted that that measure would amount to the political extinction of the Upper House. As regards the history of our criminal law Lord Tenterden was right, for the period of long pauses had passed away, and rapid changes were made with but short intervals of breathing-time. From the year the Reform Bill passed the school of Beccaria and Bentham achieved rapid successes in England. In 1832 it ceased to be capital to steal a horse or a sheep, in 1833 to break into a house, in 1834 to return prematurely from transportation, in 1835 to commit sacrilege or to steal a letter. But[67] even till 1837 there were still 37 capital offences on the statute-book; and now there are only two, murder and treason. Hanging in chains was abolished in 1834; the pillory was wholly abolished in 1837; and the same year Ewart, after many years struggle, obtained for prisoners on trial for felony the right (still merely a nominal one)[39] of being defended by counsel. The publication of the Delitti e delle Pene interrupted its authors dreams of philosophical calm, by fulfilling his hopes of literary fame. The French encyclop?dists were the first to recognise its merits, and DAlembert, the mathematician, at once predicted for the writer the reward of an immortal[13] reputation. Morellets translation, in which the arrangement, though not the matter of the text, was entirely altered, ran through seven editions in six months, and Beccaria, as has been seen, was only too delighted with the honour thus conferred on him to complain in any way of the liberties taken by the translator with the original.

I lead a tranquil and solitary life, if a select company of friends in which the heart and mind are in continual movement can be called solitude. This is my consolation, and prevents me feeling in my own country as if I were in exile.

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]

A strong feeling against the pillory was aroused by the sentence passed against Lord Cochrane in 1814, by which, for supposed complicity in a plot to raise the price of the Funds, he was condemned to a years imprisonment, to a fine of 1000l., and to stand in the pillory. A bill for the abolition of the pillory accordingly passed the Commons the very next year, but Lord Ellenborough succeeded again in bringing the Upper House to a pause: the pillory forsooth was as old as 1269; it was spoken of by the old historians; it was not confined to this country, for Du Cange spoke of it on the Continent. For these reasons the pillory remained a legal punishment down to the first year of the present reign.

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.

When the visit to Paris was contemplated it was a question of either not going at all or of leaving Teresa behind; there was not money enough for her to travel too. For Beccaria, though the son of a marquis and of noble origin, was not rich. When in his twenty-third year he married Teresa, his father was so opposed to the match on the score of insufficiency of fortune, that for some time after the marriage he refused to receive the young couple into his house, and they lived in considerable poverty. Appeal had even been made to the Government itself to break off, if possible, so unsuitable a match; but the lovers had their own way, of course, in the end, though it was not for some time that the domestic quarrel was healed, and then, it appears, through the mediation of Pietro Verri.

My occupation is to cultivate philosophy in peace, and so to satisfy my three strongest passions, the love, that is, of literary fame, the love of liberty, and pity for the ills of mankind, slaves of so many errors. My conversion to philosophy only dates back five years, and I owe it to my perusal of the Lettres Persanes. The second work that completed my mental revolution was that of Helvetius. The latter forced me irresistibly into the way of truth, and aroused my attention for the first time to the blindness and miseries of humanity.