There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.


[54] CHAPTER II. THE ORIGIN OF PUNISHMENTSTHE RIGHT OF PUNISHMENT. Suicide is a crime to which a punishment properly so called seems inadmissible, since it can only fall upon the innocent or else upon a cold and insensible body. If the latter mode of punishing the crime makes no more impression on the living than would be made by inflicting violence on a statue, the other mode is unjust and tyrannical, inasmuch as political freedom necessarily presupposes the purely personal nature of[223] punishment. Men love life only too much, and everything that surrounds them confirms them in this love. The seductive image of pleasure, and hope, that sweetest illusion of mortals, for the sake of which they swallow large draughts of evil mixed with a few drops of contentment, are too attractive, for one ever to fear, that the necessary impunity of such a crime should exercise any general influence. He who fears pain, obeys the laws; but death puts an end in the body to all the sources of pain. What, then, will be the motive which shall restrain the desperate hand of the suicide?

Nor are such scruples to convict unreasonable, when we consider the number who on apparently conclusive evidence have been falsely and irrevocably condemned to death. Playgoers who have seen The Lyons Mail will remember how barely Lesurques, the Parisian gentleman, escaped punishment for the guilt of Dubosc, the robber and murderer. But the moral of the story is lost in the play, for Lesurques actually was executed for the crime of Dubosc, by reason of the strong resemblance he bore to him, the latter only receiving the due reward for his crimes after the innocent man had died as a common murderer on the scaffold. Then there are cases in which, as in the famous case of Calas, some one having committed suicide, some one else is executed as the murderer. That dead men tell no tales is as true of men hung as of men murdered, and the innocence of an executed man may be proved long afterwards or not at all.


The first trace of Beccarias influence in England appeared in the first edition of Blackstones Commentaries, of which the book on the Criminal Laws[48] was published the very next year after the appearance of the Italian treatise. That Blackstone was well acquainted with it is proved by his frequent reference to it in treating of crimes. From Beccaria he argues that the certainty of punishments is more effectual than their severity, and finds it absurd to apply the same punishment to crimes of different malignity. Blackstone was also the first professional lawyer to find fault with the frequency of capital punishment in England, and to point out as a melancholy truth the presence of 160 actions in the statute book which were felonies without benefit of clergy.

If we would bring to the study of Beccarias treatise the same disposition of mind with which he wrote it, we must enter upon the subject with the freest possible spirit of inquiry, and with a spirit of doubtfulness, undeterred in its research by authority however venerable, by custom however extended, or by time however long. It has been from too great reverence for the wisdom of antiquity that men in all ages have consigned their lives and properties to the limited learning and slight experience of generations which only lived for themselves and had no thought of binding posterity in the rules they thought suitable to their own times. Beccaria sounded the first note of that appeal from custom to reason in the dominion of law which has been, perhaps, the brightest feature in the history of modern times, and is still transforming the institutions of all countries.

In proportion as punishments become milder, clemency and pardon become less necessary. Happy the nation in which their exercise should be baneful! Clemency, therefore, that virtue, which has sometimes made up in a sovereign for failings in all the other duties of the throne, ought to be excluded in a perfect system of legislation, where punishments are mild and the method of trial regular and expeditious. This truth will appear a hard one to anybody living in the present chaotic state of the criminal law, where the necessity of pardon and favours accords with the absurdity of the laws and with the severity of sentences of punishment. This right of pardon is indeed the fairest prerogative of the throne, the most desirable attribute of sovereignty; it is, however, the tacit mark of disapproval that the beneficent dispensers of the public happiness exhibit towards a code, which with all its imperfections claims in its favour the prejudice of ages, the voluminous and imposing array of innumerable commentators, the weighty apparatus of unending formalities, and the adhesion of those persons of half-learning who, though less feared than real philosophers, are really more dangerous. But let it be remembered that clemency is the virtue of[191] the maker, not of the executor, of the laws; that it should be conspicuous in the code of laws rather than in particular judgments; that the showing to men, that crimes may be pardoned and that punishment is not their necessary consequence, encourages the hope of impunity, and creates the belief that sentences of condemnation, which might be remitted and are not, are rather violent exhibitions of force than emanations of justice. What shall be said then when the sovereign grants a pardon, that is, public immunity to an individual, and when a private act of unenlightened kindness constitutes a public decree of impunity? Let the laws therefore be inexorable and their administrators in particular cases inexorable, but let the law-maker be mild, merciful, and humane. Let him found his edifice, as a wise architect, on the basis of self-love; let the general interest be the sum of the interests of each, and he will no longer be constrained, by partial laws and violent remedies to separate at every moment the public welfare from that of individuals, and to raise the appearance of public security on fear and mistrust. As a profound and feeling philosopher let him allow men, that is, his brethren, to enjoy in peace that small share of happiness which is given them to enjoy in this corner of the universe, in that immense system established by the First Cause, by Him Who Is.


A man accused of a crime, imprisoned and acquitted, ought to bear no mark of disgrace. How many Romans, accused of the gravest crimes and then found innocent, were reverenced by the people and honoured with magisterial positions! For what reason, then, is the lot of a man innocently accused so different in our own times? Because, in the criminal system now in vogue, the idea of force and might is stronger in mens minds than the idea of justice; because accused and convicted are thrown in confusion into the same dungeon; because imprisonment is rather a mans punishment than his mere custody; and because the two forces which should be united are separated from[134] one another, namely, the internal force, which protects the laws, and the external force, which defends the throne and the nation. Were they united, the former, through the common sanction of the laws, would possess in addition a judicial capacity, although independent of that possessed by the supreme judicial power; and the glory that accompanies the pomp and ceremony of a military body would remove the infamy, which, like all popular sentiments, is more attached to the manner than the thing, as is proved by the fact that military prisons are not regarded in public estimation as so disgraceful as civil ones. There still remain among our people, in their customs and in their laws (always a hundred years, in point of merit, in arrear of the actual enlightenment of a nation), there still remain, I say, the savage impressions and fierce ideas of our ancestors of the North.