Who can protect himself from calumny, when it is armed by the strongest shield of tyranny, secrecy? What sort of government can that ever be where in every subject a ruler suspects an enemy, and is obliged for the sake of the general tranquillity to rob each individual of its possession?

What are the pretexts by which secret accusations and punishments are justified? Are they the public welfare, the security and maintenance of the form of government? But how strange a constitution is that, where he who has force on his side, and opinion, which is even stronger than force, is afraid of every citizen! Is then the indemnity of the accuser the excuse? In that case the laws do not sufficiently defend him; and shall there be subjects stronger than their sovereign? Or is it to save the informer from infamy? What! secret calumny be fair and lawful, and an open one deserving of punishment! Is it, then, the nature of the crime? If indifferent actions, or even useful actions, are called crimes, then of course accusations and trials can never be secret enough. But how can there be crimes, that is, public injuries, unless the publicity of this example, by a public trial, be at the same time[144] the interest of all men? I respect every government, and speak of none in particular. Circumstances are sometimes such that to remove an evil may seem utter ruin when it is inherent in a national system. But had I to dictate new laws in any forgotten corner of the universe, my hand would tremble and all posterity would rise before my eyes before I would authorise such a custom as that of secret accusations.

The second pretext for torture is its application to supposed criminals who contradict themselves under examination, as if the fear of the punishment, the uncertainty of the sentence, the legal pageantry, the majesty of the judge, the state of ignorance that is common alike to innocent and guilty, were not enough to plunge into self-contradiction both the innocent man[154] who is afraid, and the guilty man who seeks to shield himself; as if contradictions, common enough when men are at their ease, were not likely to be multiplied, when the mind is perturbed and wholly absorbed in the thought of seeking safety from imminent peril.

Who can read history without being horror-struck at the barbarous and useless torments which men, who were called wise, in cold blood devised and executed? Who is there but must feel his blood boil, when he regards the thousands of wretches whom misery, either intended or tolerated by the laws (which have always favoured the few and outraged the many), has driven to a desperate return to the original state of nature; when he sees them either accused by men endowed with the same senses, and consequently with the same passions as themselves, of impossible crimes, the fiction of timid ignorance, or guilty of nothing but fidelity to their own principles; and when he sees them lacerated by slow tortures, subject to well-contrived formalities, an agreeable sight for a fanatical multitude? Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession. The good faith of contracts and the security of commerce compel the legislator to assure to creditors the persons of insolvent debtors. But I think it important to distinguish the fraudulent from the innocent bankrupt, the former of whom should receive the same punishment as that assigned to false coiners, since it is no greater crime to falsify a piece of coined money, the pledge of mens mutual[217] obligations, than to falsify those obligations themselves. But the innocent bankrupthe who, after a searching inquiry, has proved before his judges that the wickedness or misfortune of some one else, or the inevitable vicissitudes of human prudence, have despoiled him of his substancefor what barbarous reason ought such an one to be thrown into prison, and deprived of the only poor benefit that remains to him, a barren liberty, in order to suffer the agonies of the really guilty, and, in despair at his ruined honesty, to repent perhaps of that innocence, by which he lived peacefully under the protection of those laws that it was not in his power not to offend against? Laws, too, dictated by the powerful by reason of their rapacity, and endured by the feeble by reason of that hope, which generally glimmers in the human heart, and leads us to believe that unfavourable contingencies are reserved for others, favourable ones for ourselves! Men left to their natural feelings love cruel laws, however much, as subject to them themselves, it might be for their individual interest that they should be mitigated; because their fear of being injured by others is greater than their desire to inflict injuries themselves.

That the scruple to convict diminishes the certainty of punishment, and therefore raises hopes of impunity, is illustrated by the case of two American brothers who, desirous to perpetrate a murder, waited till their victim had left their State, in which capital punishment had been abolished, and had betaken himself to a State which still retained it, before they ventured to execute their criminal intention. That such reluctance to convict is often most injurious to[42] the public is proved by the case of a woman at Chelmsford who some years ago was acquitted, in spite of strong evidence, on a charge of poisoning, and who, before her guilt was finally proved, lived to poison several other persons who would otherwise have escaped her arts.[27]

But there was another side to the brightness of this success. In literature as in war no position of honour can be won or held without danger, and of this Beccaria seems to have been conscious when he[15] pleaded against the charge of obscurity, that in writing he had had before his eyes the fear of ecclesiastical persecution. His love for truth, he confessed, stopped short at the risk of martyrdom. He had, indeed, three very clear warnings to justify his fears. Muratori, the historian, had suffered much from accusations of heresy and atheism, and had owed his immunity from worse consequences chiefly to the liberal protection of Pope Benedict XIV. The Marquis Scipio Maffei had also incurred similar charges for his historical handling of the subject of Free-will. But there was even a stronger warning than these, and one not likely to be lost on a man with youth and life before him; that was the fate of the unfortunate Giannone, who, only sixteen years before Beccaria wrote, had ended with his life in the citadel of Turin an imprisonment that had lasted twenty years, for certain observations on the Church of Rome which he had been rash enough to insert in his History of Naples.

Thefts without violence should be punished by fine. He who enriches himself at anothers expense ought to suffer at his own. But, as theft is generally only the crime of wretchedness and despair, the crime of that unhappy portion of mankind to whom the right of property (a terrible, and perhaps not necessary right[67]) has left but a bare subsistence; and as pecuniary penalties increase the number of criminals above the number of crimes, depriving the innocent of their bread in order to give it to the wicked, the fittest punishment will be that kind of servitude which[214] alone can be called just, namely, the temporary servitude of a mans labour and person for the compensation of society, the personal and absolute dependence due from a man who has essayed to exercise an unjust superiority over the social compact. But when the theft is accompanied with violence, the punishment also should be a combination of corporal and servile punishment. Some previous writers have shown the evident abuse that arises from not distinguishing punishments for thefts of violence from those for thefts of cunning, thus making an absurd equation between a large sum of money and the life of a man. For they are crimes of a different nature; and in politics, as in mathematics, this axiom is most certain, that between heterogeneous quantities the terms of difference are infinite; but it is never superfluous to repeat what has hardly ever been put into practice. Political machinery more than anything else retains the motion originally given to it, and is the slowest to adapt itself to a fresh one.

It will be said, of course, that the practice of giving increased sentences where there have been previous convictions prevails all over the world and in all[90] states of civilisation. But in that very fact lies the strength of the argument against it. By the Roman law a third case of theft, however slight, exposed a man to death.[48] By the laws of St. Louis the man who stole a thing of trifling value lost an ear the first time, a foot the second, and was hung the third. By the criminal code of Sardinia in the fifteenth century, asses were condemned to lose one ear the first time they trespassed on a field not their masters, and their second ear for a second offence. But enough of such instances. The practice is undoubtedly universal; but so at one time were ordeals and tortures. May not, then, the practice be, like them, part and parcel of a crude state of law, such as was unavoidable in its emergence to better things, but such as it is worth some effort to escape from?

Against this general uncertainty of punishment, which no severity in the law can affect or make up for, the only certainty of punishment dependent on the law is in the event of conviction. But even this certainty is of a very qualified nature, for it depends on sentiments of due proportion between a crime and its penalty, which in no two men are the same. Every increase of severity in punishment diminishes its certainty, since it holds out to a criminal fresh hopes of impunity from the clemency of his judges, prosecutors, or jury.

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.