The aim of punishment is not to torment sensitive beings. 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:

There was not an anomaly in our old criminal practice which was not based on this theorya theory which had, indeed, its precedent in the old Hebrew law that punished more severely a theft from a field than a theft from a house; and the first writer who protested against it was Eden, afterwards Lord Auckland, who in 1771 published his Principles of Penal Law, one of the best books ever written on the subject. The influence of Beccaria is apparent in Edens work, not only by his direct reference to it, but by his spirit of declared opposition to the actual practice of the law. Two instances of its tendency will suffice. Imprisonment, inflicted by law as a punishment, is not according to the principles of wise legislation. It sinks useful subjects into burthens on the community, and has always a bad effect on their morals; nor can it communicate the benefit of example, being in its nature secluded from the eye of the people. And again: Whatever exceeds simple death is mere cruelty. Every step beyond is a trace of ancient barbarity, tending only to distract the attention of the spectators and to lessen the solemnity of the example. There is no such thing as vindictive justice; the idea is shocking. Judgment must be nothing but the precise text of the law, and the office of the judge is only to pronounce whether the action is contrary or conformable to it.

The opponents of capital punishment may fairly, therefore, draw an argument in their favour from the fact that so many parts of the world have found it not incompatible with the general security of life to erase the death penalty from their list of deterrent agencies. It is better to rely on so plain a fact than on statistics which, like two-edged weapons, often cut both ways. The frequency of executions in one country and their total absence in another may severally coexist with great numerical equality in the number of murders committed in each. It is always better, therefore, to look for some other cause for a given number of murders than the kind of punishment directed to their repression. They may[45] depend on a thousand other things, which it is difficult to ascertain or eliminate. Thus both in Bavaria, where capital punishment has been retained, and in Switzerland, where it had been abolished in 1874, murders have increased greatly in recent years; and this fact has, with great probability, been attributed to the influence of bad habits contracted during the Franco-German war.


Nothing is more dangerous than that common axiom, We must consult the spirit of the laws. It is like breaking down a dam before the torrent of opinions. This truth, which seems a paradox to ordinary minds, more struck as they are by a little present inconvenience than by the pernicious but remote consequences which flow from a false principle enrooted among a people, seems to me to be demonstrated. Our knowledge and all our ideas are reciprocally connected together; and the more complicated they are, the more numerous are the approaches to them, and the points of departure. Every man has his own point of viewa different one at different times; so that the spirit of the laws would mean the result of good or bad logic on the part of a judge, of an easy or difficult digestion; it would depend now on the violence of his passions, now on the[128] feebleness of the sufferer, on the relationship between the judge and the plaintiff, or on all those minute forces which change the appearances of everything in the fluctuating mind of man. Hence it is that we see a citizens fate change several times in his passage from one court to another; that we see the lives of wretches at the mercy of the false reasonings or of the temporary caprice of a judge, who takes as his rightful canon of interpretation the vague result of all that confused series of notions which affect his mind. Hence it is that we see the same crimes punished differently by the same court at different times, owing to its having consulted, not the constant and fixed voice of the laws, but their unstable and erring interpretations.

There is a general theorem which is most useful for calculating the certainty of a fact, as, for instance, the force of the proofs in the case of a given crime:

The opinion that each citizen should have liberty to do whatsoever is not contrary to the laws, without fear of any other inconvenience than such as may arise from the action itselfthis is the political dogma[203] that should be believed by the people and promulgated by the chief magistrates, a dogma as sacred as that of the incorrupt guardianship of the laws, without which there can be no legitimate society; a just compensation to mankind for their sacrifice of that entire liberty of action which belongs to every sensitive being, and is only limited by the extent of its force. This it is that forms liberal and vigorous souls, and enlightened minds; that makes men virtuous with that virtue which can resist fear, and not with that flexible kind of prudence which is only worthy of a man who can put up with a precarious and uncertain existence.

If pleasure and pain are the motors of sensitive beings, if the invisible lawgiver of humanity has decreed rewards and punishments as one of the motives to impel men to even their noblest endeavours, the inexact distribution of these motives will give rise to that contradiction, as little noticed as it is of common occurrence, namely, that the laws punish crimes which are entirely of their own creation. If an equal penalty is attached to two crimes of unequal injury to society, the greater crime of the two, if it promise a greater advantage than the other, will have no stronger motive in restraint of its perpetration.[197] Whoever, for example, sees the same punishment of death decreed for the man who kills a pheasant and the man who slays his fellow or falsifies an important document, will draw no distinction between such crimes; and thus moral sentiments, the product only of many ages and of much bloodshed, the slowest and most difficult attainment of the human mind, dependent, it has been thought, on the aid of the most sublime motives and on a parade of the gravest formalities, will be destroyed and lost.