That the punishments of long custody by which we[103] now defend our lives and properties are out of all proportion to the real needs of social existence is indicated by such a fact as that no increase of crime used to attend the periodical release of prisoners which was for long, if it is not still, customary in Russia at the beginning of each reign. Neither in India, when on the Queens assumption of the title of Empress, a pardon was granted to about one-tenth of the prison population, did any increase of crime ensue, as, according to all criminal reasoning, it should have done, if the safety of society depends on the custody of the criminal class.[60] In Sweden a low rate of crime seems to be a direct consequence of a low scale of punishment. Of those condemned to travaux forcs, which may vary from a period of two months to a period for life, 64 per cent. are condemned for one year, and only 3 per cent. are condemned for seven years;[61] whilst sentences to the latter period in England form between 50 and 60 per cent. of the sentences to penal servitude. A still greater honour was the commentary written by Voltaire. The fact that only within a few miles of his own residence a girl of eighteen had been hung for the exposure of a bastard child led Voltaire to welcome Beccarias work as a sign that a period of softer manners and more humane laws was about to dawn upon the worlds history. Should not a people, he argues, who like the French pique themselves on their politeness also pride themselves on their humanity? Should they retain the use of torture, merely because it was an ancient custom, when the experience of England and other countries showed that crimes were not more numerous in countries where it was not in use, and when reason indicated the absurdity of inflicting on a man, before his condemnation, a punishment more horrible than would await his proved guilt? What could be more cruel, too, than the maxim of law that a man who forfeited his life forfeited his estates? What more inhuman than thus to punish a whole family for the crime of an individual, perhaps condemning a wife[14] and children to beg their bread because the head of the family had harboured a Protestant preacher or listened to his sermon in a cavern or a desert? Amid the contrariety of laws that governed France, the object of the criminal procedure to bring an accused man to destruction might be said to be the only law which was uniform throughout the country.

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?

No inconvenience that may arise from a strict observance of the letter of penal laws is to be compared with the inconveniences of subjecting them to interpretation. The momentary inconvenience in the former case involves, indeed, correcting the words of the law which are the cause of the uncertainty, a task both easy and necessary; but the fatal licence of arguing, the source of so many arbitrary and venal disputes, is thereby prevented. When a fixed code of laws, which must be observed to the letter, leaves to the judge no further trouble than to inquire into the actions of citizens and to decide on their conformity to the written law; when the standard of just and[129] unjust, which should equally direct the actions of the ignorant citizen as of the philosophical one, is not a matter of controversy but of fact; then are people no longer subject to the petty tyrannies of many men, which are all the more cruel by reason of the smaller distance that separates the sufferer from the inflictor of suffering, and which are more pernicious than the tyrannies of a single man, inasmuch as the despotism of many is only curable by that of one, and a despots cruelty is proportioned, not to the power he possesses, but to the obstacles he encounters. Under a fixed code of laws citizens acquire that consciousness of personal security, which is just, because it is the object of social existence, and which is useful, because it enables them to calculate exactly the evil consequences of a misdeed. It is true they will also acquire a spirit of independence, but not such a spirit as will seek to shake the laws and prove rebellious against the chief magistrates, except against such of them as have dared to apply the sacred name of virtue to a spiritless submission to their own self-interested and capricious opinions. These principles will displease those who have assumed the right to transfer to their subordinates the strokes of tyranny they themselves have suffered from their superiors. I personally should have everything to fear, if the spirit of tyranny and the spirit of reading ever went together.

Less dangerous personally than the theological criticism, but more pernicious to reform, was the hostile criticism that at once appeared from the thick phalanx of professional lawyers, the sound-thinking practical men. From whom only two short extracts need be rescued from oblivion, as illustrations of the objections once raised against ideas which have since become the common groundwork of all subsequent legislation, in America as well as in Europe. The first extract is from a work on criminal justice by a lawyer of Provence, who in 1770 wrote as follows:

But whatever tendency might have been arising in theory or in practice about this time to mitigate the severity of our laws was destined to receive a dead check from the publication in 1784 and 1785 respectively of two books which deserve historical recollection. The first was Madans Thoughts on Executive Justice, in which the author, adopting Beccarias principle of the certainty of punishment as the best check on crime, advocated an unflinching carrying out of the laws as they stood. It was, says Romilly, a strong and vehement censure upon the judges and the ministers for their mode of administering the law, and for the frequency of the pardons which they granted. It was very much read, and certainly was followed by the sacrifice of many lives. In these Notes and Observations Beccaria and his work were assailed with that vigour and lucidity for which the Dominican school of writing has always been so conspicuous. The author was described as a man of narrow mind, a madman, a stupid impostor, full of poisonous bitterness and calumnious mordacity. He was accused of writing with sacrilegious imposture against the Inquisition, of believing that religion was incompatible with the good government of a state; nay, he was condemned by all the reasonable world as the enemy of Christianity, a bad philosopher, and a bad man. His book was stigmatised as sprung from the deepest abyss of darkness, horrible, monstrous, full of poison, containing miserable arguments, insolent blasphemies, and so forth.