Men of letters as a rule did not speak with this boldness, but in conscious opposition to professional and popular feeling expressed their doubts with a hesitation that was almost apologetic. So, for example,[50] Goldsmith could not avoid even questioning the validity of that right which social combinations have assumed of capitally punishing offences of a slight nature.[31] Strange, that in England such an argument should ever have seemed a daring novelty, a thing to be said tentatively and with reserve!

Infamy is a sign of public disapprobation, depriving a criminal of the good-will of his countrymen, of their confidence, and of that feeling almost of fraternity that a common life inspires. It does not depend upon the laws. Hence the infamy which the laws inflict should be the same as that which arises from the natural relations of things, the same as that taught by universal morality, or by that particular morality, which depends on particular systems, and sets the law for ordinary opinions or for this and that nation. If the one kind of infamy is different from the other, either the law loses in public esteem, or the ideas of morality and honesty disappear, in spite of declamations, which are never efficacious against facts. Whoever declares actions to be infamous which are in themselves indifferent, detracts from the infamy of actions that are really in themselves infamous. For the same reason it is of little avail to call in question, as Beccaria does, the right of society to inflict death as a punishment. There may be a distinction between the right of society and its might, but it is one of little comfort to the man who incurs its resentment. A man in a dungeon does better to amuse himself with spiders and cobwebs than with reflections on the encroachment of the law upon his liberty, or with theories about the rights of government. Whenever society has ceased to exercise any of its powers against individuals, it has not been from the acceptance of any new doctrine as to its rights, but from more enlightened views as to its real interests, and a cultivated dislike of cruelty and oppression.

My country is quite immersed in prejudices, left in it by its ancient masters. The Milanese have no pardon for those who would have them live in the eighteenth century. In a capital which counts 120,000 inhabitants, you will scarcely find twenty who love to instruct themselves, and who sacrifice to truth and virtue. My friends and I, persuaded that periodical works are among the best means for tempting to some sort of reading minds incapable of more serious application, are publishing in papers, after the manner of the English Spectator, a work which in England has contributed so much to increase mental culture and the progress of good sense. The French philosophers have a colony in[7] this America, and we are their disciples because we are the disciples of reason, &c. Romillys first idea with respect to the reform of the criminal law was a sufficiently humble one. It was nothing more than to raise the amount of the value of the property, the theft of which should expose a man to death. Twelvepence, as fixed by the statute of Elizabeth, originally signified a much greater theft than it had come to signify after a lapse of two centuries. Romilly had at first no idea of removing the death penalty for theft; his only hope was to get it affixed to a graver theft than the larceny of a shilling. Yet even so he could not bring himself to consult with the judges on the subject of his intended bill, for he had not the least hope they would approve of the measure.

But commerce and the interchange of the pleasures of luxury have this drawback, that however many persons are engaged in their production, they yet begin and end with a few, the great majority of men only enjoying the smallest share of them, so that the feeling of misery, which depends more on comparison than on reality, is not prevented. But the principal basis of this happiness I speak of is personal security and liberty under the limitations of the law; with these the pleasures of luxury favour population, and without them they become the instrument of tyranny. As the noblest wild beasts and the freest birds remove to solitudes and inaccessible forests, leaving the fertile and smiling plains to the wiles of man, so men fly from pleasures themselves when tyranny acts as their distributor. From the simple consideration of the truths hitherto demonstrated it is evident that the object of punishment is neither to torment and inflict a sensitive creature nor to undo a crime already committed. Can he, whose function it is, so far from acting from passion, to tranquillise the private passions of his fellows, harbour in the body politic such useless cruelty, the instrument either of furious fanatics or of weak tyrants? Shall perchance the shrieks of an unhappy wretch call back from never-receding time actions already executed? The object, therefore, of punishment is simply to prevent the criminal from injuring anew his fellow-citizens, and to deter others from committing similar injuries; and those punishments and that method of inflicting them should be preferred which, duly proportioned to the offence, will produce a more efficacious and lasting impression on the[166] minds of men and inflict the least torture on the body of a criminal.

Neither the noble nor the rich man ought to be able to pay a price for injuries committed against the feeble and the poor; else riches, which, under the[206] protection of the laws, are the prize of industry, become the nourishment of tyranny. Whenever the laws suffer a man in certain cases to cease to be a person and to become a thing, there is no liberty; for then you will see the man of power devoting all his industry to gather from the numberless combinations of civil life those which the law grants in his favour. This discovery is the magic secret that changes citizens into beasts of burden, and in the hand of the strong man forms the chain wherewith to fetter the actions of the imprudent and the weak. This is the reason why in some governments, that have all the semblance of liberty, tyranny lies hidden or insinuates itself unforeseen, in some corner neglected by the legislator, where insensibly it gains force and grows.

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.

In a period of ten years, from 1867 to 1876, the total number of principal indictable offences committed in the metropolis against propertyand these constitute the great majority of crimeswere 117,345. But the apprehensions for these offences were only 26,426, the convictions only 19,242. In other words,[94] the chances against apprehension for such crimes as burglary or larceny are four to one in favour of the criminal, whilst the chances against his conviction and punishment are fully as high as six to one. When we thus find that only 16 per cent. of such crimes receive any punishment, the remaining 84 per cent. escaping it altogether, and that only 22 per cent. are even followed by apprehension, we shall the more admire the general efficacy of our criminal machinery, in which prevention by punishment plays so small a part.[51]

The object of examining an accused man is the ascertainment of truth. But if this truth is difficult to discover from a mans air, demeanour, or countenance, even when he is quiet, much more difficult will it be to discover from a man upon whose face all the signs, whereby most men, sometimes in spite of themselves, express the truth, are distorted by pain. Every violent action confuses and causes to disappear those trifling differences between objects, by which one may sometimes distinguish the true from the false.

But if the custody of the criminal class has been overrated as a preventive of crime, or regarded as the sole preventive instead of one amongst many, it does not follow that crime on that account must be left to itself. It only follows that we should trust to punishment less and to other agencies more in our war with[104] crime, and that we should seek to check the latter at its source, not in its full stream, by attending to the improvement of the general conditions of life. It is quite certain, for instance, that the spread of education, of which Beccaria wrote in terms of such despair, means the diminution of crime; and as the majority of crimes are committed between the ages of twenty and forty, it may be predicted that from the present year onwards the great Act of 1870 will bear increasing fruit in lowering our criminal statistics. More too may be hoped for from the electric light than from any multiplication of prisons.