If I am confronted with the example of almost all ages and almost all nations who have inflicted the punishment of death upon some crimes, I will reply, that the example avails nothing before truth, against which there is no prescription of time; and that the history of mankind conveys to us the idea of an immense sea of errors, among which a few truths, confusedly and at long intervals, float on the surface.[179] Human sacrifices were once common to almost all nations, yet who for that reason will dare defend them? That some few states, and for a short time only, should have abstained from inflicting death, rather favours my argument than otherwise, because such a fact is in keeping with the lot of all great truths, whose duration is but as of a lightning flash in comparison with the long and darksome night that envelops mankind. That happy time has not yet arrived when truth, as error has hitherto done, shall belong to the majority of men; and from this universal law of the reign of error those truths alone have hitherto been exempt, which supreme wisdom has seen fit to distinguish from others, by making them the subject of a special revelation.

As to the obscurity you find in the work, I heard, as I wrote, the clash of chains that superstition still shakes, and the cries of fanaticism that drown the voice of truth; and the perception of this frightful spectacle induced me sometimes to veil the truth in clouds. I wished to defend truth, without making myself her martyr. This idea of the necessity of obscurity has made me obscure sometimes without necessity. Add to this my inexperience and my want of practice in writing, pardonable in an author of twenty-eight,[3] who only five years ago first set foot in the career of letters.

The result, then, of torture is a matter of temperament, of calculation, which varies with each man according[152] to his strength and sensibility; so that by this method a mathematician might solve better than a judge this problem: Given the muscular force and the nervous sensibility of an innocent man, to find the degree of pain which will cause him to plead guilty to a given crime. 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. The first trace of Beccarias influence in England appeared in the first edition of Blackstones Commentaries, of which the book on the Criminal Laws[48] was published the very next year after the appearance of the Italian treatise. That Blackstone was well acquainted with it is proved by his frequent reference to it in treating of crimes. From Beccaria he argues that the certainty of punishments is more effectual than their severity, and finds it absurd to apply the same punishment to crimes of different malignity. Blackstone was also the first professional lawyer to find fault with the frequency of capital punishment in England, and to point out as a melancholy truth the presence of 160 actions in the statute book which were felonies without benefit of clergy.

3. When the proofs are independent of each otherthat is to say, when they do not derive their value one from the otherthen the more numerous the proofs adduced, the greater is the probability of the fact in question, because the falsity of one proof affects in no way the force of another.


This truth is, in fact, felt, though in a confused way, by the very persons who place themselves farthest from it. For a confession made under torture is of no avail unless it be confirmed by an oath made after it; and yet, should the criminal not confirm his confession, he is tortured afresh. Some doctors of law and some nations only allow this infamous begging of the question to be employed three times; whilst other nations and other doctors leave it to the discretion of the judge.

1. When the proofs of a fact are dependent one on anotherthat is to say, when each single proof rests on[135] the weight of some otherthen the more numerous the proofs are, the smaller is the probability of the fact in question, because the chances of error in the preliminary proofs would increase the probability of error in the succeeding ones.

Since, therefore, there is more to fear from a punished than from an unpunished criminal, there is the less reason to regret the general impunity of crime. There is indeed a large class of crimes for the prevention of which more would be done, by leaving them to their natural consequences, and to the strong power against them which the general interests and moral feelings of mankind will always enforce, than by actual punishment. It is particularly crimes of dishonesty which are best punished by the mere fact of their discovery. By the Norwegian law if an offender holds any official place he is punished, not by fine or imprisonment, but by the loss of his office and all the privileges connected with it.[59] And if we imagine a country without any legal penalty at all for theft or dishonesty, thieves and their tribe would soon find their proper punishment, by that process of social shifting, which would drive them to the most deleterious or dangerous occupations of life even more effectually than it so drives them at present. The less dependence is placed on the penal sanctions of crime, the stronger do the moral restraints from it become.

Frederick the Great had already abolished it in Prussia;[1] it had been discontinued in Sweden; it was not recognised in the military codes of Europe, and Beccaria said it was not in use in England. This was true generally, although the peine forte et dure, by which a prisoner who would not plead was subjected to be squeezed nearly to death by an iron weight, was not abolished till the year 1771.[2]

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]

Against this general uncertainty of punishment, which no severity in the law can affect or make up for, the only certainty of punishment dependent on the law is in the event of conviction. But even this certainty is of a very qualified nature, for it depends on sentiments of due proportion between a crime and its penalty, which in no two men are the same. Every increase of severity in punishment diminishes its certainty, since it holds out to a criminal fresh hopes of impunity from the clemency of his judges, prosecutors, or jury.

It does not follow, because the laws do not punish intentions, that therefore a crime begun by some action, significative of the will to complete it, is undeserving of punishment, although it deserves less than a crime actually committed. The importance of preventing an attempt at a crime justifies a punishment; but, as there may be an interval between the attempt and the execution, the reservation of a greater punishment for a consummated crime may present a motive for its non-completion.