CHAPTER XIV. CRIMINAL ATTEMPTS, ACCOMPLICES, IMPUNITY.Beccaria himself was ready enough to refer all his thoughts to French inspiration, and to lay aside all claim to originality, with respect to which D’Alembert once wrote to him: ‘A man such as you has no need of a master, still less of a master like myself. You are like the Titus Curtius of Tacitus, ex se natus, nor have your offspring any grandparent. A father like yourself is enough for them.’
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 itself—this is the political dogma 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.
Thefts without violence should be punished by fine. He who enriches himself at another’s expense ought to suffer at his own. But, as theft is generally only the crime of wretchedness and despair, the crime of that unhappy portion of mankind to whom the right of property (a terrible, and perhaps not necessary right) has left but a bare subsistence; and as pecuniary penalties increase the number of criminals above the number of crimes, depriving the innocent of their bread in order to give it to the wicked, the fittest punishment will be that kind of servitude which alone can be called just, namely, the temporary servitude of a man’s labour and person for the compensation of society, the personal and absolute dependence due from a man who has essayed to exercise an unjust superiority over the social compact. But when the theft is accompanied with violence, the punishment also should be a combination of corporal and servile punishment. Some previous writers have shown the evident abuse that arises from not distinguishing punishments for thefts of violence from those for thefts of cunning, thus making an absurd equation between a large sum of money and the life of a man. For they are crimes of a different nature; and in politics, as in mathematics, this axiom is most certain, that between heterogeneous quantities the terms of difference are infinite; but it is never superfluous to repeat what has hardly ever been put into practice. Political machinery more than anything else retains the motion originally given to it, and is the slowest to adapt itself to a fresh one.
It would be possible to distinguish a case of fraud from a grave fault, a grave fault from a light one, and this again from perfect innocence; then to affix to the first the penalties due for crimes of falsification; to the second lesser penalties, but with the loss of personal liberty; and, reserving for the last degree the free choice of the means of recovery, to deprive the third degree of such liberty, whilst leaving it to a man’s creditors. But the distinction between grave and light should be fixed by the blind impartiality of the laws, not by the dangerous and arbitrary wisdom of a judge. The fixings of limits are as necessary in politics as in mathematics, equally in the measurement of the public welfare as in the measurement of magnitudes.To examine and distinguish all the different sorts of crimes and the manner of punishing them would now be our natural task, were it not that their nature, which varies with the different circumstances of times and places, would compel us to enter upon too vast and wearisome a mass of detail. But it will suffice to indicate the most general principles and the most pernicious and common errors, in order to undeceive no less those who, from a mistaken love of liberty, would introduce anarchy, than those who would be glad to reduce their fellow-men to the uniform regularity of a convent.
It was at one time said that the work really was Pietro Verri’s and not Beccaria’s, for it was published anonymously, and away from Milan. The domestic circumstances of Pietro lent some countenance to this story, as did also the fact that he charged himself with the trouble of making a correct copy of the manuscript, so that a copy of the treatise does actually exist in Pietro’s handwriting. The story, however, has long since been disproved; yet to show the great interest which Pietro took in the work, and the ready assistance he gave to his friend, a letter to him from Beccaria, with respect to the second edition, deserves mention, in which Beccaria begs him not only to revise the spelling correctly, but generally to erase, add, and correct, as he pleases. It would appear that he was already tired of literary success, for he tells his friend, that but for the motive of preserving his esteem and of affording fresh aliment to their friendship, he should from indolence prefer obscurity to glory itself.The very severity of a punishment leads men to dare so much the more to escape it, according to the greatness of the evil in prospect; and many crimes are thus committed to avoid the penalty of a single one. Countries and times where punishments have been most severe have ever been those where the bloodiest and most inhuman deeds have been committed, the same spirit of ferocity that guided the hand of the legislator having guided also that of the parricide and assassin; on the throne dictating iron laws for the villanous souls of slaves to obey, and in the obscurity of private life urging to the slaughter of tyrants, only to create fresh ones in their stead.
This honour, then, is one of those complex ideas which are an aggregate not only of simple ideas but of ideas no less complex than themselves, and which in their various presentments to the mind now admit and now omit some of their different component elements, only retaining some few common ideas, just as in algebra several complex quantities admit of a common divisor. To find this common divisor in the different ideas that men form of honour, we must cast a rapid glance over the first formation of communities.
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.’ 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.
CHAPTER XI. OATHS.
From all that has gone before a general theorem may be deduced, of great utility, though little comformable to custom, that common lawgiver of nations. The theorem is this: ‘In order that every punishment may not be an act of violence, committed by one man or by many against a single individual, it ought to be above all things public, speedy, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportioned to its crime, dictated by the laws.’CHAPTER XXXIX. OF FAMILY SPIRIT.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 nation—laws which would be celebrated from generation to generation in hymns of gratitude—are 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.详情
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