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CHAPTER III. THE INFLUENCE OF BECCARIA IN ENGLAND.

The voice of a philosopher is too feeble against the noise and cries of so many followers of blind custom, but the few wise men scattered over the face of the earth will respond to me from their inmost hearts; and, amid the many obstacles that keep it from a monarch, should truth perchance arrive in spite of him at his throne, let him know that it comes there attended by the secret wishes of all men; let him know that before his praises the bloody fame of conquerors will be silenced, and that posterity, which is just, will assign him the foremost place among the pacific triumphs of a Titus, an Antonine, or a Trajan.

[37] The greater the number of those who understand and have in their hands the sacred code of the laws, the fewer will be the crimes committed; for it is beyond all doubt that ignorance and uncertainty of punishments lend assistance to the eloquence of the passions. Yet what shall we think of mankind, when we reflect, that such a condition of the laws is the inveterate custom of a large part of cultivated and enlightened Europe?

Not only is it the general interest that crimes should not be committed, but that they should be rare in proportion to the evils they cause to society. The more opposed therefore that crimes are to the public welfare, and the more numerous the incentives to them, the stronger should be the repellent obstacles. This principle accordingly establishes the necessity of a certain proportion between crimes and punishments.

But (he goes on) since it would be an absurd folly to expect this general revolution, this general reconstruction, which could only be effected by very violent means, such as would be at least a very great misfortune for the present generation, and hold out an uncertain prospect of compensation for the next one, every speculative work, like the Dei[20] Delitti e delle Pene, enters into the category of Utopias, of Platonic Republics and other ideal governments; which display, indeed, the wit, the humanity, and the goodness of their authors, but which never have had nor ever will have any influence on human affairs. Lastly, among the crimes of the third kind are especially those which disturb the public peace and civic tranquillity; such as noises and riots in the public streets, which were made for the convenience of men and traffic, or fanatical sermons that excite the easily roused passions of the curious multitude. For their passions gather force from the number of hearers, and more from a certain obscure and mysterious enthusiasm, than from clear and quiet reasoning, which never has any influence over a large mass of men. Paley agreed with Beccaria that the certainty of punishment was of more consequence than its severity. For this reason he recommended undeviating impartiality in carrying the laws into execution; he blamed the weak timidity of juries, leading them to be over-scrupulous about the certainty of their evidence, and protested against the maxim that it was better for ten guilty men to escape than for one innocent man to perish. A man who fell by a mistaken sentence might, he argued, be considered as falling for his country, because he was the victim of a system of laws which maintained the safety of the community.

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.

A strange consequence that flows naturally from the use of torture is, that an innocent man is thereby placed in a worse condition than a guilty one, because if both are tortured the former has every alternative against him. For either he confesses the crime and is condemned, or he is declared innocent, having suffered an undeserved punishment. But the guilty man has one chance in his favour, since, if he resist the torture firmly, and is acquitted in consequence, he has exchanged a greater penalty for a smaller one. Therefore the innocent man can only lose, the guilty may gain, by torture.

One consequence of these last reflections is, that without writing no society will ever assume a fixed form of government, wherein the power shall belong to[131] the social whole, and not to its parts, and wherein the laws, only alterable by the general will, shall not suffer corruption in their passage through the crowd of private interests. Experience and reason have taught us, that the probability and certainty of human traditions diminish in proportion to their distance from their source. So that if there be no standing memorial of the social contract, how will laws ever resist the inevitable force of time and passion?

CHAPTER VIII. WITNESSES.

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.