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A cruelty consecrated among most nations by custom is the torture of the accused during his trial, on the pretext of compelling him to confess his crime, of clearing up contradictions in his statements, of discovering his accomplices, of purging him in some metaphysical and incomprehensible way from infamy, or finally of finding out other crimes of which he may possibly be guilty, but of which he is not accused.

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.


Beccaria would certainly have done better not to[23] have gone to Paris at all. His letters to his wife during his absence show that he was miserable all the time. In every letter he calculates the duration of time that will elapse before his return, and there is an even current of distress and affection running through all the descriptions of his journey. The assurance is frequent that but for making himself ridiculous he would return at once. From Lyons he writes that he is in a state of the deepest melancholy; that even the French theatre he had so much looked forward to fails to divert him; and he begs his wife to prepare people for his speedy return by telling them that the air of France has a bad effect on his health.

Nothing could be more interesting than Lord Kames account of the growth of criminal law, from the rude revenges of savages to the legal punishments of civilised States; but it was probably intended by its author less as an historical treatise than as a veiled attack upon the penal system of his country. It is, therefore, a good illustration of the timidity of the Theoretical school against the overwhelming forces of the Practical school of law, which, of course, included[51] the great body of the legal profession; and it is the first sign of an attempt to apply the experience of other countries and times to the improvement of our own jurisprudence. Palpable but consecrated abuses, which in many nations are the necessary results of a weak political constitution, are Secret Accusations. For they render men false and reserved, and whoever may suspect that he sees in his neighbour an informer will see in him an enemy. Men then come to mask their real feelings, and by the habit of hiding them from others they at last get to hide them from themselves. Unhappy they who have come to that; who, without clear and fixed principles to guide them, wander lost and confused in the vast sea of opinions, ever busied in saving themselves from the horrors that oppress them, with the present moment ever embittered by the uncertainty of the future, and without the lasting pleasures of quiet and security, devouring in unseemly haste those few pleasures, which occur at rare intervals in their melancholy lives and scarcely console them for the fact of having lived! Is it of such men we can hope to make intrepid soldiers, defenders of their country and crown? Is it among such men we shall find incorrupt magistrates, able with their free and patriotic eloquence to sustain and develop the true interests of their sovereign, ready, with the tribute they bear, to[143] carry to the throne the love and blessings of all classes of men, and thence to bring back to palaces and cottages alike peace and security, and that active hope of ameliorating their lot which is so useful a leaven, nay, which is the life of States?

No man has gratuitously parted with a portion of his own liberty with a view to the public good; that is a chimera which only exists in romances. Each one of us would wish, if it were possible, that the[122] covenants which bind others should not bind himself. There is no man but makes himself the central object of all the combinations of the globe.


Again, Proportion between crime and punishment seems to be another natural demand of equity. Yet it is evident that it is only approximately possible, and will vary in every age and country according to the prevalent notions of morality. Is imprisonment for a year, or imprisonment for life, or for how long, a fair and proportionate punishment for perjury? Who shall decide? Shall we submit it to the opinion of the judges? But has not Romilly left on record the story of the two men tried by two different judges for stealing some chickens, who were sentenced respectively one to imprisonment for two months, and the other to transportation? Shall we then give up all attempt at proportion and apply the same deterrent as equally efficacious against slight or grave offences? Draco, when asked why he made death the punishment for most offences that were possible, is said to have replied, Small ones deserve it, and I can find no greater for the gravest. The same reasoning was for a long time that of our own law; and in Japan,[78] where every wrong act was one of disobedience to the Emperor, and accordingly of equal value, the same penalty of death for gambling, theft, or murder, obviated all difficulties with regard to a proportion which is easier to imagine than it is to define.

The immortal President, Montesquieu, has treated cursorily of this matter; and truth, which is indivisible, has forced me to follow the luminous footsteps of this great man; but thinking men, for whom I write, will be able to distinguish my steps from his. Happy shall I esteem myself if, like him, I shall succeed in obtaining the secret gratitude of the unknown and peaceable followers of reason, and if I shall inspire them with that pleasing thrill of emotion with which sensitive minds respond to the advocate of the interests of humanity.

What is the political object of punishments? The intimidation of other men. But what shall we say of the secret and private tortures which the tyranny of custom exercises alike upon the guilty and the innocent? It is important, indeed, that no open crime shall pass unpunished; but the public exposure of a criminal whose crime was hidden in darkness is utterly useless. An evil that has been done and cannot be undone can only be punished by civil society in so far as it may affect others with the hope of impunity. If it be true that there are a greater number of men who either from fear or virtue respect the laws than of those who transgress them, the risk of torturing an innocent man should be estimated according to the probability that any man will have been more likely, other things being equal, to have respected than to have despised the laws.

But if the custody of the criminal class has been overrated as a preventive of crime, or regarded as the sole preventive instead of one amongst many, it does not follow that crime on that account must be left to itself. It only follows that we should trust to punishment less and to other agencies more in our war with[104] crime, and that we should seek to check the latter at its source, not in its full stream, by attending to the improvement of the general conditions of life. It is quite certain, for instance, that the spread of education, of which Beccaria wrote in terms of such despair, means the diminution of crime; and as the majority of crimes are committed between the ages of twenty and forty, it may be predicted that from the present year onwards the great Act of 1870 will bear increasing fruit in lowering our criminal statistics. More too may be hoped for from the electric light than from any multiplication of prisons.