A man accused of a crime, imprisoned and acquitted, ought to bear no mark of disgrace. How many Romans, accused of the gravest crimes and then found innocent, were reverenced by the people and honoured with magisterial positions! For what reason, then, is the lot of a man innocently accused so different in our own times? Because, in the criminal system now in vogue, the idea of force and might is stronger in mens minds than the idea of justice; because accused and convicted are thrown in confusion into the same dungeon; because imprisonment is rather a mans punishment than his mere custody; and because the two forces which should be united are separated from[134] one another, namely, the internal force, which protects the laws, and the external force, which defends the throne and the nation. Were they united, the former, through the common sanction of the laws, would possess in addition a judicial capacity, although independent of that possessed by the supreme judicial power; and the glory that accompanies the pomp and ceremony of a military body would remove the infamy, which, like all popular sentiments, is more attached to the manner than the thing, as is proved by the fact that military prisons are not regarded in public estimation as so disgraceful as civil ones. There still remain among our people, in their customs and in their laws (always a hundred years, in point of merit, in arrear of the actual enlightenment of a nation), there still remain, I say, the savage impressions and fierce ideas of our ancestors of the North.

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.

But, in spite of the liberalism of the Count, the penal laws and customs of Lombardy remained the same; and the cruel legal procedure by torture existed still, untouched by the salutary reforms effected in other departments of the Government. There was the preparatory torture, to extort confession from criminals not yet condemned; there was torture for the discovery of a criminals accomplices; and there was the extraordinary or greater torture, which preceded the execution of a sentence of death. It is true that torture could only be applied to crimes of a capital nature, but there was scarcely an act in the possible category of crimes that was not then punishable with death. Proofs of guilt were sought almost entirely from torture and secret accusations, whilst penalties depended less on the text of any known law than on the discretionthat is, on the capriceof the magistrate.

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. The success which attended Romillys Privately Stealing Bill and the failure which attended almost all his other efforts was probably due to the fact that larceny from the person without violence was, as has been said, the one single kind of offence which had Paleys sanction for ceasing to be capital. But the[61] very success of his first bill was the chief cause of the failure of his subsequent ones. For, capital punishment having been removed for mere pilfering, prosecutions became more frequent, and the opponents of reform were thus able to declare that an increase of theft had been the direct consequence of the abolition of the capital penalty. It was in vain to point out, that the apparent increase of theft was due to the greater readiness of individuals to prosecute and of juries to convict, when a verdict of guilt no longer involved death as the consequence.

Our laws prohibit suggestive (leading) questions in a lawsuit: those, that is (according to the doctors of law), which, instead of applying, as they should do,[145] to the genus in the circumstances of a crime, refer to the species; those, in other words, which from their immediate connection with a crime suggest to the accused a direct answer. Questions, according to the criminal lawyers, ought, so to speak, to envelop the main fact spirally and never to attack it in a direct line. The reasons for this method are, either that an answer may not be suggested to the accused which may place him face to face with the charge against him, or perhaps because it seems unnatural for him directly to criminate himself. But, whichever of these reasons it may be, the contradiction is remarkable between the existence of such a custom and the legal authorisation of torture; for what interrogatory can be more suggestive than pain? The former reason applies to the question of torture, because pain will suggest to a strong man obstinate silence, in order that he may exchange the greater penalty for the lesser, whilst it will suggest to a weak man confession, in order that he may escape from present torment, which has more influence over him than pain which is to come. The other reason evidently applies too, for if a special question leads a man to confess against natural right, the agonies of torture will more easily do the same. But men are more governed by the difference of names than by that of things.

Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful[204] instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography.


It were superfluous to enlighten the matter more thoroughly by mentioning the numberless instances of innocent persons who have confessed themselves guilty from the agonies of torture; no nation, no age, but can mention its own; but men neither change their natures nor draw conclusions. There is no man who has ever raised his ideas beyond the common needs of life but runs occasionally towards Nature, who with secret and confused voice calls him to herself; but custom, that tyrant of human minds, draws him back and frightens him.