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Since mankind generally, suspicious always of the language of reason, but ready to bow to that of authority, remain unpersuaded by the experience of all ages, in which the supreme punishment has never diverted resolute men from committing offences against society; since also they are equally unmoved by the example of the Romans and by twenty years of the reign of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, during which she presented this illustrious example to the fathers of their people, an example which is at least equivalent to many conquests bought by the blood of her countrys sons, it is sufficient merely to consult human nature itself, to perceive the truth of the assertion I have made.

Such was legal opinion generally as expressed by its ablest representatives with respect to the due punishment for pocket-picking not a hundred years ago. It is easy now to smile at such errors, and, at the barren waste of wisdom spent in their defence, but what weight after that can be attached, on subjects of the general policy of the law, to the opinion of its chief professors? Can it be too much regretted that Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough should have sacrificed to his own authority, whilst alive, the authority of all judges ever destined to succeed him? CHAPTER XXXV. SUICIDE AND ABSENCE.

How easily might the farseeing legislator hinder a large part of culpable bankruptcy, and relieve the misfortunes of the industrious and innocent! The public and open registration of all contracts; freedom to every citizen to consult them in well-kept documents; a public bank formed by wisely-apportioned taxes upon prosperous commerce, and intended for the timely relief of any unfortunate and innocent member of the company;such measures would have no real drawback and might produce numberless advantages. But easy, simple, and great laws, which await but the signal of the legislator, in order to scatter riches and strength through a nationlaws which would be celebrated from generation to generation in hymns of gratitudeare either the least thought of or the least desired of all. An uneasy and petty spirit, the timid prudence of the present moment, and a circumspect stiffness against innovations, master the feelings of those who govern the complex actions of mankind. Infanticide equally is the result of the unavoidable dilemma in which a woman is placed who from weakness or by violence has fallen. Finding herself placed between the alternative of infamy on the one side, and the death of a being insentient of its pains on the other, how can she fail to prefer the latter to the infallible misery awaiting both herself and her unhappy offspring? The best way to prevent this crime would be to give efficient legal protection to weakness against tyranny, which exaggerates those vices that cannot be hidden by the cloak of virtue.

Another ridiculous reason for torture is the purgation from infamy; that is to say, a man judged infamous by the laws must confirm his testimony by the dislocation of his bones. This abuse ought not to be tolerated in the eighteenth century. It is believed that pain, which is a physical sensation, purges from infamy, which is merely a moral condition. Is pain, then, a crucible, and infamy a mixed impure substance? But infamy is a sentiment, subject neither to laws nor to reason, but to common opinion. Torture itself causes real infamy to the victim of it. So the result is, that by this method infamy will be taken away by the very fact of its infliction! After crimes of high treason come crimes opposed to the personal security of individuals. This security being the primary end of every properly constituted society, it is impossible not to affix to the violation of any citizens right of personal security one of the severest punishments that the laws allow. The same may be said, though for a different reason, where there are several accomplices of a crime, not all of them its immediate perpetrators. When several men join together in an undertaking, the greater its[163] risk is, the more will they seek to make it equal for all of them; the more difficult it will be, therefore, to find one of them who will be willing to put the deed into execution, if he thereby incurs a greater risk than that incurred by his accomplices. The only exception would be where the perpetrator received a fixed reward, for then, the perpetrator having a compensation for his greater risk, the punishment should be equalised between him and his accomplices. Such reflections may appear too metaphysical to whosoever does not consider that it is of the utmost advantage for the laws to afford as few grounds of agreement as possible between companions in crime.

Another principle would serve admirably to draw still closer the important connection between a misdeed and its punishment, and that is, that the latter should as far as possible conform to the nature of the crime. This analogy facilitates marvellously the contrast that ought to exist between the impulse to[188] the crime and the counter-influence of the punishment, the one, that is, diverting the mind and guiding it to an end quite different from that to which the seductive idea of transgressing the law endeavours to lead it.

That the scruple to convict diminishes the certainty of punishment, and therefore raises hopes of impunity, is illustrated by the case of two American brothers who, desirous to perpetrate a murder, waited till their victim had left their State, in which capital punishment had been abolished, and had betaken himself to a State which still retained it, before they ventured to execute their criminal intention. That such reluctance to convict is often most injurious to[42] the public is proved by the case of a woman at Chelmsford who some years ago was acquitted, in spite of strong evidence, on a charge of poisoning, and who, before her guilt was finally proved, lived to poison several other persons who would otherwise have escaped her arts.[27]

Divine justice and natural justice are in their essence immutable and constant, because the relation between similar things is always the same; but human or political justice, being nothing more than a relation between a given action and a given state of society, may vary according as such action becomes necessary or useful to society; nor is such justice easily discernible, save by one who analyses the complex and very changeable relations of civil combinations. When once these principles, essentially distinct, become confused, there is no more hope of sound reasoning about public matters. It appertains to the theologian to fix the boundaries between the just and the unjust, in so far as regards the intrinsic goodness or wickedness of an act; to fix the relations between the politically just and unjust appertains to the publicist; nor can the one object cause any detriment to the other, when it is obvious how the virtue that is purely political ought to give place to that immutable virtue which emanates from God.


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?