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The second epoch of history consists in the hard and terrible transition from errors to truth, from the darkness of ignorance to the light. The great clash between the errors which are serviceable to a few men of power and the truths which are serviceable to the weak and the many, and the contact and fermentation of the passions at such a period aroused, are a source of infinite evils to unhappy humanity. Whoever ponders on the different histories of the world, which after certain intervals of time are so much alike in their principal episodes, will therein frequently observe the sacrifice of a whole generation[248] to the welfare of succeeding ones, in the painful but necessary transition from the darkness of ignorance to the light of philosophy, and from despotism to freedom, which result from the sacrifice. But when truth, whose progress at first is slow and afterwards rapid (after mens minds have calmed down and the fire is quenched that purged a nation of the evils it suffered), sits as the companion of kings upon the throne, and is reverenced and worshipped in the parliaments of free governments, who will ever dare assert that the light which enlightens the people is more injurious than darkness, and that acknowledging the true and simple relations of things is pernicious to mankind?

Or to take a stronger case. A deserter from the ranks escapes to his home, breaks into it at night, robs an infirm father of all the savings he has provided for his old age, and in a struggle for their possession so injures him that he dies. Must the law disclaim all indignation, all resentment, in the punishment it inflicts, and say to such a ruffian that it only deals hard with him in order to warn others by his example, and with the pious hope of making a good man of him in the future? If resentment is ever just, is it wrong to give it public expression? If it is natural and right in private life, why should it be a matter of shame in public life? If there is such a thing as just anger for a single man, does it become unjust when distributed among a million?

In order that a punishment may attain its object, it is enough if the evil of the punishment exceeds the advantage of the crime, and in this excess of evil the certainty of punishment and the loss of the possible advantage from the crime ought to be considered as part; all beyond this is superfluous and consequently tyrannical. Men regulate their conduct by the reiterated impression of evils they know, not by reason of evils they ignore. Given two nations, in one of which, in the scale of punishments proportioned[167] to the scale of crimes, the severest penalty is perpetual servitude, and in the other the wheel; I say that the former will have as great a dread of its severest punishment as the latter will have; and if there be any reason for transporting to the former country the greater penalties of the other, the same reasoning will serve for increasing still more the penalties of this latter country, passing imperceptibly from the wheel to the slowest and most elaborate tortures, nay, even to the last refinements of that science which tyrants understand only too well. When the community is one of individuals, the subordination that prevails in the family prevails by agreement, not by compulsion; and the sons, as soon as their age withdraws them from their state of natural dependence, arising from their feebleness and their need of education and protection, become free members of the domestic commonwealth, subjecting themselves to its head, in order to share in its advantages, as free men do by society at large. In the other condition the sonsthat is, the largest and most useful part of a nationare placed altogether at the mercy of their fathers; but in this one there is no enjoined connection between them, beyond that sacred and inviolable one of the natural ministration of necessary aid, and that of gratitude for benefits received, which is less often destroyed by the native wickedness of the human heart than by a law-ordained and ill-conceived state of subjection.



The chief honour of the earliest attempt at law reform belongs to Sir William Meredith, who in 1770 moved for a committee of inquiry into the state of the criminal laws. This committee proposed in its report of the following year the repeal of a few Acts which made certain offences capital; and accordingly the Commons in 1772 agreed, that it should no longer be punishable as high treason to make an attempt on the life of a Privy Councillor, that desertion of officers or soldiers should no longer be capital, nor the belonging to people who called themselves Egyptians. Some other proposals were negatived, such as a repeal of the hard law of James I. against infanticide; but the House of Lords refused their assent even to the slight changes passed by the Commons. It was an innovation, they said, and subversion of the law.[34][53] It is no reproach to Meredith, Burke, and Fox that they ceased to waste their strength against Conservatism such as this. All hope of reform was out of the question; and the most dreadful atrocities were suffered or defended. In 1777 a girl of 14 lay in Newgate under sentence to be burnt alive for false coinage, because some whitewashed farthings, that were to pass for sixpences, were found on her person; and a reprieve only came just as the cart was ready to take her to the stake. Not till 1790 was the law abolished by which women were liable to be burnt publicly for high or petit treason.[35]

That these causes do to a great extent defeat the preventive effect of our penal laws, is proved by the tale of our criminal statistics, which reveal the fact that most of our crime is committed by those who[100] have once been punished, and that of general crime about 77 per cent. is committed with impunity. But if so large a proportion of crimes pass unpunished altogether, it is evident that society depends much less for its general security upon its punishments than is commonly supposed. Might it not, therefore, still further relax such punishments, which are really a severe tax on the great majority of honest people for the repression of the very small proportion who constitute the dishonest part of the community?[58]

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.

It is not difficult to go back to the origin of this ridiculous law, because the absurdities themselves that a whole nation adopts have always some connection with other common ideas which the same nation respects. The custom seems to have been derived from religious and spiritual ideas, which have so great an influence on the thoughts of men, on nations, and on generations. An infallible dogma assures us, that the stains contracted by human weakness[156] and undeserving of the eternal anger of the Supreme Being must be purged by an incomprehensible fire. Now, infamy is a civil stain; and as pain and fire take away spiritual and incorporeal stains, why should not the agonies of torture take away the civil stain of infamy? I believe that the confession of a criminal, which some courts insist on as an essential requisite for condemnation, has a similar origin;because in the mysterious tribunal of repentance the confession of sins is an essential part of the sacrament. This is the way men abuse the surest lights of revelation; and as these are the only ones which exist in times of ignorance, it is to them on all occasions that docile humanity turns, making of them the most absurd and far-fetched applications.

It has already been remarked by Montesquieu that public accusations are more suited to republics, where the public good ought to be the citizens first passion, than to monarchies, where such a sentiment is very feeble, owing to the nature of the government itself, and where the appointment of officers to accuse transgressors of the law in the name of the public is a most excellent institution. But every government, be it republican or monarchical, ought to inflict upon a false accuser the same punishment which, had the accusation been true, would have fallen upon the accused.

But perhaps the best illustrations of the tendency of actions to retain the infamy, attached to them by a past condition of fanatical punishments, are the cases of suicide and child-killing. Could a Greek of the classical period, or a cultivated historian like Plutarch reappear on earth, nothing would strike him more vividly than the modern conception or recent treatment of these crimes. According to Plutarch, Lycurgus, the great Spartan lawgiver, met his death by voluntary starvation, from the persuasion that even the deaths of lawgivers should be of use to mankind, and serve them with an example of virtue and greatness; and Seneca held that it was the part of a wise man not to live as long as he could but as long as he ought. With what astonishment, then, would not Plutarch or Seneca read of recent European punishments for suicideof Lady Hales[75] losing the estate she was jointly possessed of with her husband, the Judge, because he drowned himself; of the stake and the cross-roads; of the English law which still regards suicide as murder, and condemns one of two men who in a mutual attempt at self-destruction survives the other to the punishment of the ordinary murderer! Is it possible, he would ask, that an action which was once regarded as among the noblest a man could perform, has really come to be looked upon with any other feeling than one of pity or a sad respect?

Paley, of course, defended the thing he found established; nor, considering the system he had to defend, did he state the case for it without ingenuity. He had, indeed, nothing to add to what Blackstone had said regarding punishment, namely, that it was inflicted, not in proportion to the real guilt of an offence, but in proportion to its facility of commission and difficulty of detection. To steal from a shop was not more criminal than to steal from a house, but, as it was more difficult to detect, it was more severely punished. Sheep, horses, and cloth on bleaching-grounds were more exposed to thieves than other kinds of property; therefore their theft required a stronger deterrent penalty.